in Criterion Month

Purple Noon (1960)

The theme of this year’s Criterion Month seems to be life getting in the way of me being able to get all my reviews published on time and to my own satisfaction, and Purple Noon is another example of that. I started reading Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley a few weeks ago, in the hopes of having finished it before watching Purple Noon, the first big adaptation of Highsmith’s classic tale of ex-patriotism, murder, identity, and Italian beachfront property. While I was only able to get a little over halfway through the book before the day to watch the film had arrived, it was still enough for it to be apparent that Purple Noon takes a fair amount of liberties with adapting its source material, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

One of the more noticeable changes is that Purple Noon essentially cuts out a lot of the opening chapters of the book, where Tom Ripley has been hired by a wealthy New York businessman to track down his son living in Italy and bring him back to America. In Purple Noon, when we first meet Tom (played by Alain Delon), he’s already made friends with ex-pat Phillipe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) and is spending his days galavanting around the fictional Italian seaside town of Mongibello with Phillipe and his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt). Phillipe is aware that his father (who lives in San Francisco in this version) has hired Tom to convince Phillipe to go back home to America, though the movie is vague as to how American Tom or Phillipe are, while Marge is seemingly French in this version.

Though Phillipe enjoys Tom’s company, despite his ulterior motives, he eventually starts to sour on Tom, eventually playing a bad prank on him by stranding him out on a dinghy on his yacht, leaving him to bake in the sun. Phillipe finds that the boat was accidentally disconnected from the yacht and he sails to find Tom, nearly passed out on the high seas. After Phillipe brings Tom back aboard his yacht, Tom starts openly talking about how he would kill Phillipe and be able to get away with it. He then abruptly goes through with these murderous thoughts, stabbing Phillipe and throwing his body in the ocean. Then when he makes it back ashore, he starts assuming Phillipe’s identity, learning to master writing in his signature, forging his passport, and collecting the checks wired to him by his wealthy family. However, the walls start to slowly close in on Tom after he has another murderous run-in with Phillipe’s friend Freddy Miles, while the authorities also seem to smell something fishy with this man posing as Phillipe Greenleaf.

Now, if you’re familiar with Highsmith’s novel or the 1999 film adaptation of it, one big difference you may have noticed was that Dickie Greenleaf has been changed to Phillipe Greenleaf, I guess because “Dickie” is too American-sounding? It’s a small change, but one that speaks to the fact that by making this a French-Italian production, it definitely changes the tone of this story about Americans living in Europe. Which I think is fine, if you just want to revel in the story’s beautiful scenery and beautiful people, and Purple Noon does have an intoxicating way of presenting this story as some sort of European escapism on par with La Dolce Vita, but with a little murder thrown in.

However, I think the story’s themes about reinvention lose a little bit of its power, as a nobody American trying to change their identity into something more sophisticated against the backdrop of Europe doesn’t quite have the same impact as a European (who may have lived in America) doing the same thing. Regardless, Alain Delon (in his first big starring role) is quite compelling as Tom Ripley, exuding a mercurial nature, yet also seems to have a kind of yearning and intensity befitting of this character. I would say it’s one of the few aspects of this film that I like a bit better than in 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, since I do like Matt Damon in that role, but he doesn’t feel quite as effortless in inhabiting it as Delon does.

I feel like I ultimately had the same experience with Purple Noon that John had when reviewing The Wages of Fear a few years ago for Criterion Month after being so taken with the later American adaptation of the same material, 1977’s Sorcerer. Though I don’t feel like everybody loves that movie, I was certainly taken with 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley after we reviewed it on an episode of The Pick, and for me, that’s still a somewhat more enjoyable version. That version manages to retain Highsmith’s cynical sensibilities with a more faithful ending, as opposed to Purple Noon, which succumbs to the more moralistic endings required of films of this era. Also, the gay undertones of Highsmith’s novel are pretty much nonexistent in Purple Noon, which I think is one of the more interesting elements of the 1999 adaptation.

Still, I do appreciate that this movie is doing its own riff on The Talented Mr. Ripley, being faithful enough to the spirit of the novel, while also adapting to the constraints of being a European production that doesn’t have nearly the budget of a Hollywood film. It ends up placing the film in the context of a lot of what was going on in French and Italian cinema at the time, mixing this post-war carefreeness with the Hitchcockian subject matter of Highsmith’s source material. Which I suppose in the end feels appropriate for a story about an American taken out of his element and placed on the continent.