Part of the answer may lie in the element of translation or mistranslation. Ripley is an American character and creation, the product of Partricia Highsmith’s pen, but he is here played by the lithe, wiry Alain Delon, whose speech alternates between broken Italian and French. Would Clément go as far to say that Ripley has been mistranslated or misinterpreted?
Highsmith has famously touted Delon as the perfect Ripley and it is odd to consider then why Matt Damon took the part of Ripley and the part of Philip, or Dickie Greenleaf in Minghella’s version, fell to Jude Law, who more closely resembles Delon. Minghella’s film, which adheres closer to the original text, is much longer and Damon seems out of his wits or at least to lack the diversity or “imagination” to capture Ripley’s twists and turns.
It is interesting to point out that in Minghella’s version Ripley actually “puts on” clothes that Greenleaf wears during the film; but in the Clément version while Ripley takes clothes from Greenleaf’s closet the two never “inhabit” the same clothes or person. They are distinctly different. Clément’s Ripley is a radical one. His film is the more psychologically subtle of the two, though it suffers from a number of loose characters and its character development cannot match that of Minghella who benefits from the longer running time.
In the Clément there is more mystery to Ripley; mystery of origins or background are hardly narrated and we are left to wonder how Ripley came to use a knife so skilfully. Does he learn on the job? A quick study? Or is this survival instinct, “historical necessity”? Clément does elevate him to a “historical character” by weaving subtle social commentary. In this appreciation, Ripley is a youth. He stares outside at the children and laments his troubled loss of innocence after killing Freddy, Greenleaf’s best buddy. Freddy seems the only one that can see through Ripley’s disguises and always pins him right on, or does he? In Minghella that is the case. But in Clément all judgments of Ripley are mistaken. At the beginning of the movie, Freddy calls Ripley a “slob.” Right before Ripley kills him, Freddy shows up at the apartment Ripley is keeping in Rome under Greenleaf’s name and Freddy confronts him and claims that stands out as nouveau riche. But overall, Ripley’s tactics are anything but messy.
Behind Clément’s interpretation of Ripley is a higher ideal of poetic justice. Who is happy in this movie? More than anyone else, it is Tom, Tom Ripley. The world is his oyster, as is made clear through Ripley’s interluding walk through the food quarter in the middle of the movie. This is explains why Philip Greenleaf rushes off from Mongibello to be with Tom rather than be with Marge: Ripley is just that fun to be with. Together they impersonate a blind man. Ripley first, walking out into the street fearless of cars, and then Philip to pull girls. Who is blind? Ripley’s blind man is an end in itself, an actor’s feat. But Philip cannot keep the charade alive and it is only a means to the end of picking up girls. His life is callous and insouciant and Ripley makes him appreciate that to the death. There is a “bait-and-switch” that goes on, where the older man is forced to answer to the progressive ideals of the new younger generation-defining Ripley—a post-war hero. The famous boat scene in the movie where the “bait-and-switch” occurs echoes Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, a movie about a jazz-infused love triangle put in to an open boat.
The last point to consider is the treatment of Ripley’s guilt or lack thereof. In Minghella, there is fear and guilt. But in Clément, Ripley lives with a clear conscience and is only scared of instability. At all costs he strives for stability. In this sense, his goals remain pure. Hence, the childish and confident ease with which he negotiates society. Money is something for Ripley that continues to be artificial, even after he has it. And it comes as no surprise that when he assumes Greenleaf’s money he quickly unloads the artificial inherited “Greenleaf” fortune to Marge, whom he later convinces to be his girlfriend. Who does he really love Marge or Ripley? The homosexual overtones are considerably damped down in Clément and Ripley’s desire for Marge is genuine attraction rather than the outgrowth of wanting to fully inhabit Ripley’s character. Clément portrays a Ripley from the gut: a tragic figure, searching for offshore fortune, only to end up in the Trojan Horse.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Reviewed by Jason Rotstein
It would be hard to invent a more apt dramatic personality for cinema than the character of Tom Ripley. The key to Ripley’s character is that he is a good actor. Smooth, slippery, chameleon-like; so good that he can play people’s roles better than they can themselves, and that they themselves actually wish they could impersonate him as well. In Mr. Ripley, we see the audacious ambition of youth in its full form.
In Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), the Ripley we meet is a character who is easy to miss and will stop at nothing to be taken seriously. The so-stated “amoral, psychopathic” faculties of Ripley’s character are present, nascent from the beginning. But René Clément’s Plein Soleil (1960) weighs in differently on whether an individual, “a criminal,” like Ripley is made or born. On one hand, in Plein Soleil we know that Tom is a double for Fra Angelico, the topic of Marge, Philip Greenleaf’s girlfriend/fiancée, dissertation, which makes him an “artist of perfect, blessed, divine talent.” Clément’s take is more than sympathetic; he makes him out to be a hero. The boat on the water at the end of the movie looks Trojan. So he is a hero. What kind of hero? At the end of the movie, Ripley’s last words are that he wants, “The best you have!… The best!” Is he rogue then, or Robin Hood?