söndag 3 augusti 2014

My summer with Ripley

Matt Damon as Ripley, arriving in Mongibello, aka Ischia.
One of my favorite films is The talented Mr Ripley, the film by Anthony Minghella from 1999. The film is so rich with beautiful things, like the scene when Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon, arrives in the little village of Mongibello, just outside Naples, by the Mediterranean. The bus stops at a town square overlooking the sea - in reality we are looking at the port at the island of Ischia, since Mongibello doesn't exist. Ripley gets off the bus, with his one cheap suitcase and an uncomfortable jacket made for a cold day in New York, not for a sunny day in Italy. What we see is what he sees: people seem to be cleaning up after the daily market, a priest greets the driver of the bus with a song, the majestic sea looks on from behind. How wonderful life could be in such a place.

And then the music soars with a sad melody by music composer Gabriel Yared that throughout the film will remind us that this is the story of Thomas Ripley, a person who is not a real person. He is an impostor, maybe even a demon, who is playacting at being human. And all this wonderful life is simply not for him.

The setting, and the story, of a poor American boy meeting a rich American boy in an Italian paradise and then killing him and taking his identity is of course already there in Patricia Highsmith's novel, The talented Mr. Ripley, which was published in 1955. Highsmith created Ripley, a most fascinating character, and this summer I finally sat down and read the novel. I was very surprised at what I found. Usually, when the book and the film, the discussion is about how much has been chosen not to appear in the film, the novel turned into film is often seen as some kind of superficial layer of the much more substantial written work. 

Jude Law as Dickie, the object of desire.
This is not the case with Highsmith's novel. Her novel is the perfect pitch for a great film. What Minghella makes of Highsmith's Ripley story is nothing short of a master piece - together with a choice selection of actors, cinematographers, musicians, sound engineers, costume designers, art and set designers. 

Highsmith's Ripley is a very unsympathetic character. She describes how he always feels like an outsider, and how he almost from the start stalks rich kid Dickie Greenleaf, making the transition to the violence that Ripley's resentment leads to in a disturbingly smooth and easy way. 

In the book, there is no friendship with Marge, Dickie's equally spoilt girl friend in Mongibello, who is writing a book. In the film, she seems to be the only one of the three who is doing some kind of official work, as well as being the only one who figures out who Ripley is. But in the book, Marge is a marginal character who hates Ripley and is a mediocre writer. 

In the film, Dickie cheats on Marge with a girl in Mongibello, Silvana. She commits suicide on his account, and her body is washed ashore in a spectacular scene during a local festival to the Madonna. Ripley then proposes to take the blame, in an attempt to tie Dickie more closely to himself. 

In the film, Ripley meets a young American heiress on the boat to Europe, the innocent Meredith Logue. With her, he tries on his new identity of being Dickie Greenleaf, which suggests that Ripley already at this early point in the story, is planning to kill Dickie. Meeting Meredith also means a few crucial turning points later on in the film, for instance the opera sequence where Tom has to alternate between being both Dickie and Ripley.

Neither Silvana nor Meredith are in Highsmith's novel. And Ripley's relationship with Marge is also only sketched out in the novel. In the novel there is no summer lunch at Marge's house while Dickie is with Silvana, and when he turns up, awfully late, she says "We ate everything." And the novel doesn't have the scene on Dickie's boat, for instance, where Marge tries to sooth Ripley for not coming with them to the Cortina skiing trip. 

Marge is played in the film by Gwyneth Paltrow, Silvana by Stefania Rocca and Meredith by Cate Blanchett. All of them are given great moments to shine in the film - as when Silvana, meeting Dickie in the streets of Mongibello, and barely resisting his seduction, says with her Italian accent "I hate you!"
Or Meredith, at the end of the magical evening at the opera, when she understands that Ripley, whom she thinks is Dickie, will go back to Marge, and she leaves him, courageously keeping her chin up, waving her hand like a queen, in her gorgeous Barbie-doll dress. And Marge, the dull American girl in Highsmith's story, who Gwyneth Paltrow turns into a tragic heroine, the girl who knows the truth, but no one will listen to. When she meets Ripley again in Venice, together with Dickie's father and the American detective, she is just magnificent, suppressing both anger and fear, a woman on the verge of a nervous break down. 

Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge.
For a while I thought that this was Patricia Highsmith's alter ego: the young female writer being crushed to silence by men with power. I was asking myself: What makes you want to write a story about a man who is so good at stealing other people´s identities, and changing the facts in order to make anything she says, sound crazy. I thought creating the character of Ripley would be the perfect way to get back at these men with power, turning Marge into a sympathetic victim. But none of this is in Highsmith's novel - what she focuses on is the relationship between Ripley and Dickie, and how Tom learns to become Dickie. 

Her novel is a study in psychopathic behaviour, in many ways comparable to Bret Easton Ellis American Psycho. But unlike Ellis, she seemed to enjoy being Ripley, writing about him, being him. What seemed to interest her was to be that kind of cruel person, and she, the writer Patricia Highsmith, certainly didn't seem to be a nice person. Everything I've read about her suggests an evil, antisocial and deeply disturbed human being. 

What strikes me is what a deeply moving, and human film about deceit, romantic longing and dangerous resentfulness Minghella carved out of Patricia Highsmith's novel. And of course, what a stroke of genius to give the part of Tom Ripley to Matt Damon, such a likeable fellow, and what a marvellous actor! 

I love the way Matt Damon as Ripley prepares to meet Dickie, learning about jazz - when we know he prefers classical music.  And in the hotel in Mongibello, when he is practising his Italian, while spying on Dickie and Marge at the beach: "Ecce e mia facia!"

None of this is in Highsmith's dark and brooding novel, a rather depressing read actually. While Anthony Minghella's film belong to the kind of cinematic memories that never ever let me go.

She never saw Minghella's The talented Mr Ripley, of course, since she died in 1995. In an article in Sight and Sound from 1988, about the numerous film- and tv-adapations of her work, she said that she liked Alain Delon who played Ripley in the French version of the novel, Plein soleil, from 1960. And if she had the choice, she would have given the part of Ripley to Robert Walker - the actor who played Bruno Anthony in Hitchcock's Strangers on a train, in 1951.

That was the film I planned to write about originally, in keeping with my tradition from a few years back to write about "my summer with Hitchcock". This is what happened instead: I can't stop writing about this film that bares the mark of Hitchcock in many ways, recreating his legacy, so to speak, and turning a rather dull story into a great movie. But here is a picture of Hitchcock's film Strangers on a train where Robert Walker is captivating as the dangerously spoiled rich kid Bruno Anthony - creating the sketch for both Dickie and Ripley.

Guy Haines (Farley Granger) under the spell of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker).