René Clément was the first to adapt Patricia Highsmith’s book The Talented Mr. Ripley for the big screen. And he made it his own. Titled Plein soleil (1960), his gripping thriller – which focuses on the cruel, but cool Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), who ingeniously and skillfully finds ways to further his finances and lifestyle by taking the identity of another man – is much more subtle in portraying the darkness of the character than Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). And by choosing Alain Delon for the role, who embodies a stylish and handsome anti-hero, he even succeeds in getting the audience to identify with him.
Plein soleil is a visually beautiful film – Highsmith described it as “very beautiful to the eye and interesting for the intellect” – and its style recalls to mind Hitchcock’s works. Clément himself was a technician, who had trained as an architect and made his debut in cinema as a cameraman, and when you watch the film you can observe all these influences in each frame. In fact, he was named the French Alfred Hitchcock after he made this film. Henri Decaë’s exquisite cinematography and the sun-drenched mise-en-scène (the picture was shot entirely on location in Rome, Naples and the vicinity islands) sharply contrasts the themes of envy, deceit and murder. One other fascinating thing about it is that it is an unusual noir: all is bright and in the open, inviting the viewer in. And this is also the reason why I prefer the French title: Plein soleil. The English translation, Purple Noon, is unfortunate because it fails to capture that very inescapable dark feeling despite the sunlit and idyllic settings.
Alain Delon, in his first major part, plays Tom Ripley to perfection – even Patricia Highsmith agreed. The role of Tom Ripley was initially meant for Jacques Charrier, but Delon fought with the producers and the director to get the role. He also had Bella, Clément’s wife and the film’s costume designer, on his side and he eventually got to play Ripley. With his arresting good looks and animal instinct, he bursts on screen and makes a more sinister Ripley than Matt Damon in Minghella’s film. We don’t need dialogue to be made aware of the character’s darting intelligence. This is in itself a great cinematic achievement, something that, yet again, reminds me of Hitchcock. “Movies are made of very simple ideas,” David Mamet, a Hitchcock disciple, wrote in his book, On Directing Film. “The good actor will perform each small piece as completely and as simply as possible.” Delon manages to portray a complex character without many words. And it was a very complex character to interpret, according to Clément himself: “Does criminal innocence exist? Delon must, in the crime, preserve this purity which cannot be judged, because it stems from a psychology which escapes us by escaping the norm of humanity.” Throughout his career, Delon would push “the negation of his own mythology inside a film that respects the rules of the genre,” Jacques Deray, who made nine films with the actor, would reveal.
The young man was entrusted by Herbert Greenleaf, an American ship magnate, to bring his rich and idle playboy home. Philippe (Dickie is Philippe in Clément’s film) is basking in the sun on the Italian shores with his girlfriend, Marge (Marie Laforêt). Tom becomes fascinated by Philippe and his way of life. He succeeds in introducing himself into the intimacy of the couple and eventually the situation turns tragic. Maurice Ronet plays Philippe Greenleaf and, as opposed to The Talented Mr. Ripley, where the differences of style, class and appearance were much more obvious between Jude Law’s Dickie and Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley and there was much emphasis on the costumes, in Plein soleil Tom and Philippe are more alike in looks (with Delon’s costumes much more pared down compared to those of Damon, which were so decisively enunciated), both physically and in the way they dress. The devil is in the details though, revealing the differences in class and wealth between the characters. This subtlety makes it more challenging for the viewer. Both characters are clothes-conscious, to the point of being cool in their looks and manners, yet we are able to distinguish between Tom and Philippe by those clothes in an understated yet significant way. We therefore are able to notice Tom’s mutability of identity by the way he dresses and the interest he takes in fixing his identity through appearance, even if he does it in a very instinctual way.
Tom wears his clothes more conventionally – for example, light blue shirt with the collar unbuttoned and tucked into his belted trousers. Philippe’s style of dressing is more casual, relaxed and fashionable – a loose, unbuttoned, soft-textured, brown suede jacket revealing his bare chest, fluid trousers rolled up to the calf, hinting at his leisurely, la dolce vita lifestyle as he travels through Europe, having fun being his only purpose. Clothes for him are just a way to express his status, whereas Ripley is trying to alter his identity through them – he is an impersonator who pre-meditates a crime.
Philippe is intentionally portrayed as arrogant, disdainful and less attractive than Tom. Therefore, it is Delon who, from his first outfit of a light blue oxford button-down shirt, off-white jeans and brown suede horsebit loafers, embodies masculine effortless elegance – appreciating the classic codes of dress, but with a relaxed, even rebellious feel. Let’s stay a while on the two grey suits he wears at different moments in the story. He wears a belt with the first, the shirt and trousers are slim-cut, the jacket thrown casually over the shoulder, the loafers dark coloured. When he takes Philippe’s place, he dresses in his clothes. The grey suit becomes looser in tailoring, the shirt is also more relaxed in shape, he loses the belt and he switches to white loafers. The conventional grey suit takes on a different identity, leisurely and much more idle. The masquerade is complete. And we believe it. That’s a good story.