Patricia Highsmith may not have invented the psychological thriller but her novels and short stories have gone a long way towards defining it. Highsmith’s first novel became Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train while her eighth novel became Claude Chabrol’s The Cry of the Owl. However, it is not until we consider the Ripley novels that the scope of cinema’s love affair with the work of Patricia Highsmith becomes truly obvious; Ripley has been played by actors including Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon and John Malkovich who struggled to leave their mark on the character under the watchful directorial glares of Wim Wenders, Anthony Minghella and Liliana Cavani. Essays could be written about what it is that keeps attracting actors and directors to the character of Tom Ripley but the obsession, such as it is, started with this very film: Rene Clement directing the gorgeously feline Alain Delon in one of the most under-appreciated French films of the early 1960s.
The film opens with two men sitting on a Roman piazza forging signatures on joke postcards. The slighter of the two men looks to the other for approval and love while the tanned, paunchy brute switches his affection and interest to a passing friend. The younger man bristles at the unspoken reproach and endeavours to do better… to be denied the love of Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) is like being deprived of light and air. After an evening’s carousing, the pair decide to return to the side of Greenleaf’s girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforet) where the younger man is only too happy to make apologies for his better. Sent to another room while the couple make love, the younger man tries on Greenleaf’s clothes and imitates his patterns of speech. This young man is named Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) and his hunger for a place in the world poses a terrible threat to the arrogant Greenleaf who has just enough sense to realise the danger he is in.
Having established both male characters and the weird feelings of desire, envy and rivalry that bind them, Clement moves the action to a sailboat where Greenleaf taunts and humiliates Ripley in an effort to see quite how far his love will bend before snapping. Brilliantly tense, these little encounters show Ripley growing in sinister confidence as he explains how he would kill Greenleaf and take his place before doing exactly that. From there, the action moves to a series of hotels where Ripley is forced to think on his feet in an effort to stay ahead of the police, ahead of Greenleaf’s friends and on course for winning the heart of Marge. We know Ripley is poor, we know that he has nothing and we know that the people he kills and defrauds are in many ways far worse than him and so we too are taken in by Delon’s feline grace and predatory sexuality; Just like Marge and Greenleaf, we are seduced. In many ways, Ripley is a blank slate and Highsmith’s character is often read as a sort of existential void, a character without essence who becomes so enraptured by Greenleaf’s brutish insouciance that he effectively kills to acquire his identity. Delon’s Ripley is slightly different to that of the book as his desire for Greenleaf’s lifestyle and girlfriend are immediately obvious. Delon’s Ripley is an absolute masterpiece, a creature of malign and yet unfettered grace, the male libido chiselled into marble and made socially acceptable by the strategic use of smart haircuts and tailor-made suits. Think Bond unhitched from Queen and Country.
Though widely regarded as Delon’s film in so far as it helped launch his career, the real star of Plein Soleil is the powerful and yet understated direction of Rene Clement. Largely overshadowed by the Nouvelle Vague directors who foolishly dismissed him in the 1960s, Clement was a technical perfectionist who sweated every shot, every camera movement and every choice of colour, a skillset made really obvious by the splendid visual restoration job carried out by Studiocanal as part of the film’s re-release. Indeed, while the Italy depicted in Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley is imbued by a warmth and vitality as picturesque as it is clichéd, Clement presents Italy a Freudian nightmare that traps people between the soul-destroying visibility of sun-drenched streets and the shameful freedom of claustrophobic hotel rooms and storm-tossed seas. Every shot and every scene presents Ripley with a choice: Kill and lie to stay in the light or go back to the comfortable forgiving darkness from which you came.
Powerfully directed and brilliantly acted, Plein Soleil is a classic psychological thriller that has been unavailable in the UK for far too long. Exquisitely restored (at least visually speaking), the film comes with a wonderful suite of extras including an astonishingly candid interview with Delon and some great discussions of the film with people involved in making it.