Thanks to the Criterion Collection’s usual due diligence in pursuit of excellence, a high quality print of Purple Noon, Rene Clement’s 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is now available to folks like me. I liked the movie just fine and I’ll probably like it even better on future acquaintance now that I know before it starts just how far the ending strays from the source (haven’t been taken so far aback on that score since the first time I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
The French critic interviewed in the supplements says Clement was aiming closer to Dostoevsky than Highsmith and I’d say he got closer to Poe than either. To be fair, though, Ripley was as unfilmable as it got in 1960….But my how quickly things changed.
The highlight of the release by far (including the movie itself), is an interview with Highsmith, conducted (in French) for French television, circa 1971.
A few posts back I wrote about the dangers of what now might as well be called Tarantino-style amorality, a danger Highsmith–a writer with a fair claim on being the greatest crime novelist of the only century likely to produce any serious contenders for the honor–has been regularly accepted as having aided and abetted.
And, of course, that acceptance has always been intended as a supreme compliment.
So what did she have to say about it here?
Well, for one thing, this (in English translation):
PH: Since I always write about guilt, I often think my books are old-fashioned, because today no one worries about guilt.
This makes me kind of curious to know just how “old-fashioned” she felt by the time she died a quarter-century later…Curious enough that I now feel a much stronger need than previously to track down her biography on the chance it has something to say about this.
Meantime, there’s this other quote to chew on, which is more to the point of a few things I’ve been posting here lately regarding the triumph of critical “interpretation” over mere artistic intent (and how the temptation offered by such notions has been overwhelming reason for quite a long while).
PH: It’s easy to write about young men like Tom Ripley because it’s basically a joke. Honestly, crooks always win. It’s hard to catch crooks. [Note that she says “crooks” not “a crook”–big difference.]
Interviewer: In fact, he’s a very likable criminal.
PH (clearly bemused): “Likable” is an exaggeration. He can’t be likable if he kills his best friend.
Really? He can’t?…I love that the interviewer says “In fact,” which would, of course, make the rest of her statement undeniable, on the order of deciding what number comes after the equal sign if what’s in front says two plus two.
Then again, she could be right.
After all, what did good old-fashioned Patricia Highsmith really know about Tom Ripley?
All she did, poor thing, was invent him.
(NOTE: The whole thing will probably be up on YouTube in short order so those interested in hearing the interview but not able or willing to pay for the DVD might want to keep an eye out. Among other things, Highsmith professed that she preferred living in the country because people were more honest there, a statement that will doubtless have various members of the crit-illuminati making all kinds of excuses for her once word gets around….I can hear it now. “Well she always was a bit eccentric you know….”)
UPDATE: KayJay has kindly pointed out to me that those who have Hulu may be able to access the film at least Link here...Including a blurb that says Purple Noon is “less judgmental” than the modern version with Matt Damon. Goodness (SPOILER ALERT dead ahead). Purple Noon is so judgmental that Ripley gets caught! When his not getting caught is the whole point of Highsmith’s vision for the character–not just in the source novel but in the whole series. I assume this comment is from the school best descrbed as “the-French-are-so-much-more-inherently-sophisicated-than-us-they-must-always-have-the-superior-take”…and the superior take is the ‘nonjudgmental’ one, of course, even if the person being judged is a psychopathic murderer.
The modern version doesn’t go quite as far as Highsmith’s novel because it suggests (though it does not spell out) that Ripley might have a conscience hiding down there somewhere in the pit that passes for his soul. But it certainly isn’t as “judgmental” as Purple Noon (which actually needs Ripley to be caught so badly it finally makes him stupid–can’t get any further from the source than that). Don’t get me wrong. Clement’s film is excellent. It’s just deeply misleading to suggest it is less conventional than the version Hollywood made in the nineties when indeed the reverse is true.