I'll bet that many fans of Anthony Minghella's excellent The Talented Mr. Ripley never watched René Clément's Purple Noon, the first cinematic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel. That's a pity because, even though this French movie hasn't stolen one iota of the love I have lavished upon Minghella's version over the years, it is a remarkable exercise in growing suspense and tension.
The film opens in Italy, and Tom and Philippe (not Dickie) have been having fun together for some time now, squandering the money of Philippe's father, who hired Tom to take him back to the USA. The story opens clumsily and thrusts the viewer into the middle of the action without any preambles, unlike Minghella's version. Philippe is getting tired of Tom, who's dressing up in his clothes and imitating him in front of mirrors, and Tom is realising he won't persuade Philippe to return to the USA and collect his father's reward. He's also falling in love with Philippe's girlfriend, Marge. So Tom decides to kill him.
The murder, one of the highlights of the movie, happens in one of my favourite settings: in a yacht in open sea, away from civilisation and witnesses. It's a setting that several directors have exploited, from Roman Polanski to Claude Chabrol to Phillip Noyce. Few situations invoke tension and fear like the illusive peacefulness of the sea because, as Clémént shows, nature doesn't choose sides and can quickly become an obstacle to a well-planned murder.
Alain Delon, younger than I've ever seen him in a movie, plays Tom Ripley. He plays the famous sociopath with ruthlessness and premeditation, hiding his emotions, if he has any, under an ice-cold look that is Delon's trademark. He delivers a fine performance, but his Ripley is not perfect. In the novel the villain seek to erase his identity and become someone else, someone of a better social class. The movie eschews the study of identity and class differences and makes Ripley a more traditional murderer, who kills a man for money and for a girl.
The character of Marge (Marie Laforêt) gives to the movie little other than her beauty and a reason to pit between Tom against Philippe. I, however, prefer Tom in love with himself, a narcissist who doesn't need others. And Laforêt doesn't come close to Gwyneth Paltrow in Minghella's version, who shows intuition and backbone.
Maurice Ronet, however, is perfect in the role of Philippe (he's also a dead ringer of Jude Law). Half school bully, half bon vivant, the playboy side of the character is captured by Ronet with ease, although Philippe is so insensitive, it's difficult at times to have sympathy for him.
Purple Noon is beautiful to look at and not just because Clément is filming in picturesque Italian cities by the sea. The cinematography is in the hands of Henri Decaë, who's lent his talent to filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville, Louis Malle and François Truffaut. Although the screenplay doesn't seem too interested in the question of identity, the camera, through its countless games with mirrors and reflections, tries to force the novel's main theme back into the movie.
The movie is very suspenseful, even for those who think they know the story. Clément takes enough liberties with the novel to make the story fresh. Tom's main problem continues to be juggling the privileges his new identity gives him with remaining anonymous, a difficult task when he's impersonating the son of a rich man.
I've always loved films that show the perspective of killers and social outcasts. Between seeing a detective investigating and seeing a killer using his wits to remain free, I prefer the latter. There's nothing more thrilling and fascinating than being privy to a killer's mind for a couple of hours. What can we ask of fiction other than what we can't get from daily life? That's what Purple Noon is: a little outing from normal life into the life of a sociopath, told without regrets and empathy, like Tom Ripley.