If you want to escape the December doldrums to a far-off place near the Mediterranean, where everything outdoors finds a place in the sun and everything indoors seems caressed by a sea breeze, then perhaps a viewing of Purple Noon should be on the horizon.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, Rene Clement’s 1960 screen adaptation of the thriller follows characters that are as attractive as they are opaque, particularly the film’s lead, Tom Ripley. Played with dangerous vulnerability by Alain Delon, Ripley seems altogether amoral while never quite coming across as a monster though he has selfish, exploitative, and ultimately murderous rationalizations.
On the surface it’s perplexing how a thriller arises out of a story with young people lounging in chairs on Italian city squares, vacationing in seaside villages, and relaxing on a yacht in the Adriatic. Instead, the story roots itself in the antihero leading man’s psychological state, illustrated not in voiceover or his dialogue, but through his unfathomable actions.
While trying to convince his pleasure-seeking friend Philippe Greenleaf to return to his father in San Francisco, Ripley samples an Amalfi Coast life of luxury he is not inclined to give up after his mission fizzles. Initially, Philippe welcomes Ripley’s fawning of the extravagant lifestyle he provides. But he then starts using the desperate man for his own twisted amusement, eventually stranding Ripley on the yacht’s dinghy for hours. Tensions mount between the two, especially in the presence of Philippe’s girlfriend Marge, and it seems inevitable that only one man will get off the boat alive.
As Clement and cinematographer Henri Decae use Delon in nearly every scene, we go where he goes, we see what he sees, but we are not told what he thinks. His outward actions hint at his inner dark side while his innate charm plays with our expectations of what he is capable of. Set against picturesque scenes of Italy and the Mediterranean that make it look like a crime novel within a travelogue, the movie captivates our eyes as well as our minds.
Film Forum will screen Purple Noon as part of their “Women Crime Writers” series, which coincides with the release of a Library of America set of crime novels by pioneers such as Vera Caspary, Dolores Hitchens, in addition to Patricia Highsmith and other foremothers of the domestic suspense genre that dominates today’s best seller lists.