Purple Noon (1960)

Director: René Clément

Starring: Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet, Marie Laforêt

As my country stands in unison to memorialize the lives lost fourteen years ago on this date, I found I didn’t have the stomach to sit through a movie based on the events of 9/11 for the purposes of a review. In fact, I wasn’t much interested in watching an English language film at all. The title I did choose… while completely irrelevant to this particular date in history… can resonate more with someone watching it for the first time now than those who saw it when it premiered 55 years ago. In the era of computer technology in which we now live, the crime of identity theft is a more common practice than it has ever been before. The fact that “Purple Noon” (or “Plein Soleil” as is its French title) is also based on an American novel which has sense been adapted for the screen here in the States might also give one incentive to check this one out. That would be a good instinct.

Penniless American Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), unsuccessful in persuading his rich acquaintance, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), to return to the States, opts instead to take over the man’s life. At first, Tom just wants the wealth he himself has not accumulated. But then he sees Philippe’s fiancée, Marge (Marie Laforêt), a woman whom Tom believes Philippe does not fully appreciate, and it adds incentive for Tom to carry out his plan. With the trio sailing together for Sicily, Tom overhears Philippe telling Marge of his intentions to cut their third wheel loose. The deal is sealed when, as a prank, Tom is marooned in the dinghy by Philippe and left in the sun for hours.

Back on board, Tom first plants evidence that makes it look like Philippe has been having an affair. Next, once Marge has gone ashore, Tom brazenly informs Philippe of his plans to murder him. Thinking it all a joke, Philippe encourages Tom to elaborate on his scheme. When he does, Philippe becomes visibly concerned, but doesn’t have much time to do anything about it before he is stabbed and his lifeless body thrown overboard. With Philippe out of the way, Tom can now lead a carefree life of luxury… or can he? One thing he hadn’t counted on was who might come inquiring as to the whereabouts of Philippe, such as Philippe’s friend Freddy, whom Tom had met earlier. Freddy gets too nosy for his own good, and Tom is forced to kill him. This draws the attention of the police, but in a way that actually benefits Tom, as the murder is pinned on Philippe. While he continues posing as Philippe in some cases, Tom also reverts back to his own identity when dealing with inquisitive police and with Marge, whom he has convinced Philippe has left and no longer loves her. In a way, we know this to be true, but only because Philippe no longer has a pulse. With the authorities now an ongoing nuisance, Tom continues to work on Marge until she finally submits to his advances.

The American novel on which “Purple Noon” is based is, of course, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith. The 1999 adaptation, this time using the original title and starring Matt Damon, can be said to be closer to the original source material, but this is not always a virtue. In this case, I think not, as Damon simply cannot match the power of Alain Delon’s performance. It is not easy to make a criminal likable in spite of all that they say and do, and therefore someone worth rooting for as in “The Godfather,” the greatest movie about crime ever made. “Purple Noon” succeeds in this as well, and even features an excellent score from Nino Rota, whose most famous film score is “The Godfather.”

Where I think “Purple Noon” succeeds the most is in the ways it convey certain character’s thoughts through imagery. There are two examples of this which really stand out. The first is the fish market scene. This scene comes soon after Tom has returned to land after killing Philippe. As he walks through the fish market, his jacket draped over one shoulder, he examines the various forms of seafood, all of which appear to stare back at him with their lifeless eyes in an accusatory manner. At the end of the plaza, he comes to a pair of scales used to measure out food portions. To the paranoid Tom, they may as well be the Scales of Justice. The second great scene comes when the police inspector comes to Tom’s hotel room to question him as to the known whereabouts of Philippe, the prime suspect in Freddy’s death. The inspector already has a suspicion that it may have been Tom, not Philippe, who committed the murder. To express this, he carefully nudges the door towards Tom, the mirror on the other side revealing Tom’s reflection.

The only place in which “Purple Noon” slips up is in its ending, choosing not to go with the one presented in Patricia Highsmith’s story. Suffice to say, there’s a good reason why more than one book exists in the Ripley series. Despite this misstep, I still think of it as the superior adaptation of Highsmith’s work. Watch it for Alain Delon, director Clément’s use of imagery and the beautiful scenery of late 1950’s/early 1960’s Italy, and you’ll barely even notice the subtitles.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Brilliant and spot on review, talented Mr. Williams!

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