CHRIS: The Talented Mr Ripley (Mingella, US, 1999)

One of the limitations of creating a list of films since STAR WARS (1977) is that many of my favourite directors either stopped producing films or had died before its release.

Hitchcock is probably the first auteur director that I was aware of, mainly due to his ‘brand’ being applied to various books I read as a child in the seventies, such as GHASTLEY TALES and the THREE INVESTIGATORS. When I was old enough to watch his films I devoured them avidly and some of the first ones I saw are the ones that remain my favourites.

Included in my list of favourites is STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) in which a tennis star Guy Haines meets with psychopathic Bruno Anthony, played with chilling charm by Robert Walker,  and he is fooled into making a murderous pact. It is based on a book written by Patricia Highsmith, who also created the devious character of Thomas Ripley who appeared in a series of novels in the 50s through to the 70’s. If I had to pick an overall favourite Hitchcock film it would be  SHADOW OF DOUBT (1943) as it is the most typical of all Hitchcock films as it includes many of his thematic obsessions, such as mistaken identities and the darkness that people hide behind their personalities.

Hitch is never too far away in Anthony Mingella’s adaptation of THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY – from the Saul Bass inspired title-sequence, to the suspenseful murders and the repeated motif of reflections in mirrors – his influence is very apparent. Thomas Ripley (Matt Damon) borrows a Princeton jacket and is mistaken for an alumni by Herbert Greenleaf, a wealthy shipping magnet, who asks him to go to Italy to persuade his son Dickie (Jude Law), who is living the high-life with his fiancé Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), to come back home to New York. Ripley accepts the task and the money offered by Greenleaf and he quickly begins to integrate himself into the lavish, yet relaxed world of Dickie and Marge. Italy provides a luscious back-drop for the hedonistic life-styles of the privileged Americans abroad. Rippley’s talent for mimicary and forgery is used to squeeze more funds from Dickie’s father and slowly Ripley is consumed into Dickie’s world and begins to fall in love with him. There are a couple of scenes that are highly charged with homo-eroticism, the most striking is the moment that Dickie comes home and catches Ripley wearing his clothes and performing in the mirror.

Dickie becomes bored with his new friend and Ripley develops a jealousy towardshis affection for the gawky elegance of Marge, who remarks, “The thing with Dickie… it’s like the sun shines on you, and it’s glorious. And then he forgets you and it’s very, very cold.” Dickie’s attentions are diverted to the odious Freddie Mills (brilliantly played by Philip Seymore Hoffman). In a moment of rage, Ripley kills Dickie in a scene that simultaneously recalls TORN CURTAIN (1966) as it isn’t an easy murder and LIFEBOAT (1944) as it is filmed on a claustrophobic rowing boat that is constantly bobbing the frame up and down.

There are critics that who negatively compare Matt Damon’s cold, empty, chilling performance as Tom Ripley to the charismatic version of the same character played by Alain Delon in Réné Clément’s adaptation of the same novel in PLEIN SOLIEL (1960). However, Damon’s performance is perfectly pitched, a blank, empty canvas that is coloured by the characters that he wishes to inhabit. The genius of the film is the way that the audience wants him to succeed in his monstrous campaign of murder, yet at the same time, they want him to be found out, so he can be saved from himself.

Mingella made his name as first a screen-writer then as a workmanlike adaptor of literary novels, the most lauded of which was the coldly efficient THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996). Clémént’s film is tauter than this version as Mingella has gone back to the original novel and tried to unpick the motivations of the character and discovered a fractured yet empty personality. Watch this film again and notice how the reflections of faces are repeated and distorted; there is something about this adaptation that is pure cinema and it owes an incredible debt to Hitch.

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