Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Purple Noon (1960)

René Clément’s 1960 French crime thriller Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) was based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) is a bit of a drifter and a bit of a grifter. He has no money but he’s always been pretty successful at living off other people’s wealth. At the moment he is working on what should be a very easy job. A Mr Greenleaf in San Francisco has offered him $5,000. All Tom has to do is to bring Greenleaf’s son Philippe (Maurice Ronet) back to San Francisco. It seemed like easy money. Although Tom has always been poor and Philippe has always been rich they have been friends since boyhood. Convincing Philippe to return to his father should present no difficulties.

But Philippe has no interest in returning to San Francisco.

Philippe wants to head off to Taormina to meet his friends. He will reach Taormina on his yacht. His girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt) will accompany him. Tom is certainly welcome to come along too.

Tom has plans. The $5,000 from Philippe’s father, even if he could get that money, would not be enough. Nowhere near enough. Tom does not intend to remain poor. He confides his plan to Philippe, who considers it a joke.

Tom and Philippe have an uneasy relationship. Philippe is a spoilt trust-fund brat with no sense of responsibility and no great interest in other people’s welfare, or other people’s feelings. He is regular condescending and insulting towards Tom. Tom accepts this sort of treatment because he has those plans and if they come to fruition no-one will be able to condescend to him again.

Hurting other people seems to amuse Philippe. He treats Marge rather badly but she’s crazy about him and believes that he loves her. It's unlikely that Philippe has ever loved anybody in his life.

Tom puts his plan into action but it turns out to be much more complicated than he’d expected. He’d thought that he’d considered every possibility but annoying little things go wrong. Tom is however quick-witted and treats these setbacks as interesting challenges to his improvisational skills. The question is whether he can go on successfully improvising.

Patricia Highsmith was notorious for her indifference to plausibility which necessitated some fairly important changes to the story. As Clément explained in an interview, a lack of plausibility is more noticeable in a movie. The ending was also changed, not because it had to be changed but because Clément intensely disliked Highsmith’s ending.

This movie was Alain Delon’s big break and he makes the most of it. He somehow manages almost to make us feel empathy for Tom Ripley. He makes Ripley an oddly magnetic charismatic figure, which is essential since the plot relies heavily on Tom’s ability to bluff his way out of tight corners. Maurice Ronet and Marie Laforêt give fine performances but this movie belongs to Alain Delon.

René Clément was one of the established names in the French film industry in the mid-50s and as such he became the subject of the derision of the up-and-coming Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). Truffaut was particularly scathing. The hostility of the New Wave crowd clearly owed a lot to jealousy. They wanted to tear down the reputations of established directors so that they could become the big noises in French cinema. In fact Purple Noon is considerable more impressive and more entertaining than most of the New Wave offerings of the same time period.

The Criterion Collection release includes a mini-documentary plus copious liner notes which include a very perceptive essay on the film and a 1981 interview with Clément.

Purple Noon, like the movies of the New Wave crowd, taps into the zeitgeist of its time. Tom Ripley is very much an anti-hero. He’s a cynical charmer, he’s ruthless and amoral, but somehow he’s not entirely unsympathetic. We admire his determination to play a very dangerous game in which the odds are stacked against him and we can’t help admiring the way he plays that game.

It’s also in touch with the zeitgeist of the 60s in its emphasis on style, and its emphasis on surfaces. It has a very definite early 60s look.

Purple Noon is also wildly entertaining. And of course it offers us the chance to see Alain Delon on the brink of major stardom. He already has charisma, he already has that incredible Delon coolness. His star quality shines out. Purple Noon is highly recommended.

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