PURPLE NOON (PLEIN SOLEIL) (France, 1960) ***
The French title means Full Sun, which admittedly wouldn't sound too good in English. But at least "Full" has more implications than "Purple" which baffles me. The reference is to the strong summer sun of Italy, which at one point burns badly the back of one of the main characters (he recovers overnight!) and, in general, like a full moon, makes people do unusual and extreme things.
Essentially this is a two-and-a-half characters yarn. The two are Tom Ripley and Philippe (sic) Greenleaf. The half is Marge, Philippe's girlfriend who has no real personality -- or a last name, for that matter. The script is faithfully based on "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a novel by Patricia Highsmith whose books were also adapted for Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" (1951). Her "Ripley's Game" became the Wim Wenders movie "The American Friend" (1977) in which Dennis Hopper plays Tom Ripley. (I cannot connect the two cine-Ripleys with each another).
Tom is played by Alain Delon, then 25 and well on his way to becoming a heartthrob and a mega-star. That same year (1960), he was Rocco in "Rocco and His Brothers," and in 1963, he had the second big part in "The Leopard. " Both films are classics by Luchino Visconti.
Philippe is played by Maurice Ronet, then 33. He was another heartthrob whose career was shorter than Delon's. He made fewer movies and died in 1983.
The copy now playing in the US is a reissue whose colors are good in some scenes, a bit faded in others. The photography and the compositions are excellent, thanks to master cinematographer Henri Decat and no doubt because director Clement had himself worked behind the camera.
Production values are very good. Nino Rota's music is unlike the splendidly Italian, familiar scores he wrote for Italian movies (including many Fellinis) and for all the "Godfather" films. It is interestingly "modern" and jolting, with small incursions into Italianate passages.
We meet Philippe and Tom in a Rome cafe on the chic Via Veneto. They seem to be best friends, look beautifully sun-tanned and fit (the actors' age difference is hardly noticeable), yet there's something about their relationship that is peculiar. It makes the viewer uncomfortable, as in the way Philippe uses Tom as an errand boy, or the cavalier fashion with which they speak about women or treat them. There is much to mine here for a feminist analysis.
Philippe wonders what gift he can give Marge. "A book on [painter] Fra Angelico" says Tom. "But she is writing one. " "So, all she's got to do is to copy" retorts Tom, and he is sent to get the book. Both suggestion and action are entirely in the spirit of the movie.
(In this sequence, when an acquaintance stops by, his barely glimpsed, silent companion is, I am sure, the uncredited, Austrian-born movie actress Romy Schneider. She had already been in many pictures, many of them German-speaking, but did not become an international star and the darling of the European public until the early 60s).
The men sound and behave like kinky playboys on the loose within a Dolce Vita society. Philippe is the rich son of a wealthy American who has offered penniless Tom $5, 000 if he can deliver Philippe back to San Francisco. The "boys" do much joking about this, followed by callousness --indeed cruelty--as the men buy a white cane off a blind man, play tricks on an easy-to-conquer lady, then drop her. Menacing, unhealthy undertones are ever present.
When we meet Marge we also see the angels in the book on Fra Angelico. Sharp eyes might notice the hint that the two male "friends" are devils who play cat-and-mouse games with each other. Tom seems to covet Marge, Philippe knows it. Entering his own bedroom, and finding Tom trying out his clothes and imitating his voice, he rebukes him nastily. Tom, on the other hand, bit by bit lets us understand that he would like to take Philippe's place, girl, bank account and all--even to impersonate him.
The trio go on a trip on Philippe's sailboat "Marge. " There, everyone lies to everyone else. A current of crypto-homosexual tensions may be sensed. Philippe first mistreats Tom, then, in one of his moods, he throws Marge's manuscript in the sea. She leaves the boat. End of Part One.
In Part Two many much happens to keep you in merciless suspense. Violence escalates along with major complications, unexpected developments, changes, disguises, role-playing and surprises.
At no time do we feel any sympathy for any of the main characters. But then morality is not our concern, while the thriller side of the film is, in beautiful, warm Italy, skillfully treated with clinical coldness.
The thriller is strong and good, in part because of the time devoted to building up the characters. That they remain ciphers to the end is no defect. Where the minuses come in is in the absence of leavening humor. The film shares this characteristic with many Continental thrillers that have not learned the advantage of using humor, as Alfred Hitchcock did.
Clement, however, chose, matched and directed his two male protagonists very well. They both have a pretty-boy physique that only semi-masks their potential for nastiness. (This is a trait of both Ronet and Delon in several of their other movies). But for American audiences to accept them as Americans requires more faith than is possible.
One flaw may affect only those viewers who like matters to be logical. The plot has several improbabilities a well as much vagueness about time and space, such as several instant, credibility-taxing changes of abodes. Yet since the tempo is minutely calculated to keep picking up speed until it reaches breathlessness, much of the audience is kept too busy to spot the holes in the story.
Director Rene Clement died in March 1996. His obituary in the New York Times rightly mentions his Oscar-winning, 1952 "Forbidden Games" as the film that Clement will be mostly remembered for. It is about a little girl orphaned when the Germans were invading France in World War II and strafing fleeing civilians on country roads. The French critics would agree but also call it a tie with "The Battle of the Rails," which dealt in documentary fashion with the same war and railway workers sabotaging German trains during the Occupation. The French would rate "Purple Noon" right after those two.
Other than the above, among Clement's two dozen movies, few had an unconditionally positive critical reception. "Gervaise," "The Damned," "The Walls of Malapaga" and " Monsieur Ripois" came closest. He also made the too ambitious and too loose-jointed "Is Paris Burning?" with a huge number of international stars.