Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Talented Mr. Ripley, The (1999) ** 1/2

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 version of this movie was the 1960 (and * ** *) 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, then 32) was whooping it up in Italy, hires young Tom Ripley (Alain Delon, then 24) to go to Italy and bring back the playboy. The film was the beginning of very good-looking Delon's stardom, reinforced by three Italian movies: "Rocco and his Brothers," "The Eclipse" and "The Leopard." Swiftly he reached superstar/heartthrob status, and became very rich. Ironically for the man who played a killer and impostor in "Plein Soleil," years later he was more than suspected of connections with the French Mafia --and worse.

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) was born in Texas, went to college in the USA, moved to London for a while, and spent most of her life as an expatriate in Switzerland. Her thrillers were much appreciated in Europe as well as in America. Several of them were made into movies, starting with the 1951 “Strangers on a Train” by Alfred Hitchcock.

She wrote five Ripley novels. “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was the second of the series, and the first one to be made into a movie, as the French “Plein Soleil” (see my first paragraph above.) The next film was “The American Friend” (1977) by the German director Wim Wenders, from her “Ripley’s Game.” The third is the 1999 “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Anthony Mingella, a remake of “Plein Soleil.” Next came “Ripley’s Game” (2002) by the Italian maverick Liliana Cavani, with Ripley 20 years older, and played most nastily by John Malkovich. In the year 2004 we expect “Mr.Ripley’s Return, adapted from the novel “Ripley Under Ground.”

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

The original “Plein Soleil” is excellent, arguably a classic. It may be a bit of a stretch to believe that its French leads are Americans, but minor suspension of disbelief is easy. In the remake, the main lines are the same. Tom Ripley, a pianist of sorts 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 went a long way abroad toward La Dolce Vita fun, games, fast Alfa-Romeos, fast everything and everybody. Still, $1,000 is a small sum which bothers me. In the original French movie Ripley was given 4 or 5 grand and that made sense.

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 girl-friend, the would-be writer 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 and 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."

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—although they are far from being as captivating as those of “Plein Soleil” whose photography is masterful and does justice to the sets.

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. The picture see-saws between weaknesses and strong points. When I first saw it and wrote it up, I gave it three stars. Now, seeing it again and—what’s more important—seeing it a day after re-re-screening “Plein Soleil,” I must downgrade it to two-and-a-half stars.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel