The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

reviewed by
Edwin Jahiel


BY EDWIN JAHIEL

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (1999) *** Written and directed by Anthony Minghella; based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Photography, John Seale. Editing, Walter Murch. Production design, Roy Produced by William Horberg and Tom Sternberg. Cast: Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Cate Blanchett (Meredith Logue), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles), Jack Davenport (Peter Smith-Kingsley), James Rebhorn (Herbert Greenleaf), Sergio Rubini (Inspector Roverini), et al. A Miramax Films/Paramount Pictures.release. 135 minutes. R (sex, language, violence)

Add another title to the continuing, large number of French film remade as Hollywood productions. The original was the 1960 thriller "Plein Soleil," (called "Purple Noon" in Anglo countries) by Rene Clement (The Battle of the Rails, Forbidden Games, Gervaise, Is Paris Burning? etc.)

In the early 1950s wealthy American Mr. Greenleaf, whose son Philip (Maurice Ronet, 32) was whooping it up in Italy, hires young Tom Ripley (Alain Delon, 24) to go to Italy and bring back the playboy. The film was the beginning of very good-looking Delon's stardom, reinforced by the Italian "Rocco and his Brothers," "The Eclipse" and "The Leopard." Swiftly he reached superstar/heartthrob status, and very rich. Ironically for the man who played a killer and mpostor in "Plein Soleil," years later he was more than suspected of connections with the French Mafia --and worse.

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), an American expatriate to Europe where she was much appreciated, wrote five Ripley novels. "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is the second of the series and the first to be filmed. Later came Wim Wenders's "The American Friend."

The talented Mr. Minghella is British of Italian extraction, wrote and directed the imaginative "Truly Madly Deeply,". which is wonderful; directed "Mr. Wonderful" which is not but still good; scripted and directed the triumphant "The English Patient."

The original movie's is excellent, though its leads are Frenchified. In the remake, the main lines are the same. Tom Ripley, a pianist who lives in poverty in New York as a men's room attendant, is mistaken by shipbuilder magnate Herbert Greenleaf for a Princeton schoolmate of his profligate son. His recompense for returning the errant Dickie to the USA is $1,000. In the late 1950's, the movie's period, this now paltry sum wenta very long way abroad toward La Dolce Vita fun, games, fast Alfa-Romeos, fast everything and everybody.

Tom, who has no special looks, suntan, or overt sophistication, worms his way into Dickie's household through talented, confidence-man tricks. Dickie lives high on the hog, is reasonably dissolute, crazy about jazz, plays the saxophone, seems happy with his would-be writer girl Marge.

He does mock Tom for being rather rusticated, but he becomes friendly, treats Tom like a pet, buys him suits and stuff, takes him around, notably to a jazz club (excellent music) where Tom scores through his musicianship. He does not score with women. There is already a soupcon of gayness or bisexuality. It will get amplified but still treated with kid gloves.

Tom, having tasted the "good" life, cannily plans and plots away. But his ultimate aim is not immediately apparent --probaly not even to himself, as he is something of a secret psycho. Still, friendship is good, but, in complex ways it leads to a major dispute at sea, during which Tom kills Dickie. Next thing you know is that Tom impersonates Dickie.

I will say little about the plot, twists, complications and the other parties involved in it. The developments are interesting, the zig-zags good, the suspense quite effective. But not as effective as it might have been.

There are several reasons for this. In no order of priority: too many improbabilities, narrow squeaks; coincidences. Too much tight timing. Too many tricks by Tom, yet they work without any major glitches when, in real life there would have been several. Tom paints himself into corner after corner, yet he always manages to get out of them in "accelerando" tempo.

Much of the story is elliptical. Apparently, the film would have come to over four hours had it not been severely edited. I presume that the cutting down process came at the price of some abruptness and muddling.

There are several, discreet influences of Hitchcok, including the decision to make this a character-driven movie. Including also passing details, such as Bernard Herrmann-like sounds. I wish Minghella had looked more closely at what King Alfred had wrought. He would have learned that Hitch kept everything clear and clean, so that the viewer would not be distracted and waste time wondering or puzzling -- at the expense of suspense. Minghella director should have studied Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," which has several points in common with "Ripley" -- and was also based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, her first to be filmed.

The moral of "Ripley" is that, yes, you can fool all the people all the time. I will not get into the conclusion of the movie, but anyone who knows that other Ripley books followed can guess that Tom is a survivor.

In spite of my objections I find the movie taut (if not tight), gripping, colorful, even beautiful--in its many Italian settings. The supporting characters are interesting and effective. Small parts ( a young working-class woman, a deaf landlady); mid-parts (an Italian detective and an American detective; a likable choir master); major parts ( New York heiress Meredith and t obnoxious American-abroad Freddie). Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge is mostly decorative --and even then, seldom photographed through flattering lenses. Weaknesses notwithstanding, this is a three-star film


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