He has been played by Matt Damon, Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich and Barry Pepper, but the definitive portrayal of crime novelist Patricia Highsmith’s most enduring creation was as early as 1960. Damon and Hopper come close to conveying the ruthlessness and ambition of Tom Ripley, but Delon effortless captures his mystique.
Rene Clement’s cool and sexy Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) features Delon as the amoral forger and identity thief who relentlessly journeys into the darkest recesses of the conscience. Clement’s adaptation of Highsmith’s 1955 thriller made a star out of Delon, who was two films old and on the cusp of greatness. The French actor also headlined Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers in 1960, and both films set him on a long and rich career in arthouse and popular cinema.
Delon’s chiselled face, diamond eyes and estimable acting skills are well suited for the role of Ripley, the trickster who swaps his plebian life for another man’s. Clement’s adaptation dispenses with the back story and dives straight into the newfound friendship between Tom and Philippe Greenleaf (Dickie Greenleaf in the novel) that has been built on a lie.
Ripley has conned his way into persuading Philippe’s loaded father that he is a childhood friend of his son and can bring him back from his never-ending holiday along the coast of Italy. The early scenes establish the contrasting characters of the two men – one tanned and flush with the entitlement of wealth, the other lean, hungry-looking and suitably attentive. Philippe (Maurice Ronet) orders Tom about, is rough with his girlfriend Marge (Maria Laforet), and is not above playing a prank on Tom during a sailing trip that nearly kills the young man.
Had Phillippe been more carefully watching Tom’s face, he might have seen the contempt in his eyes, the hardening of his cheek muscles, and the fake smile that barely leaves the lips. French New Wave regular Henri Decae’s rich camerawork, which showcases the beauty of the Italian landscape and the humans who inhabit it, measures the thickening of Tom’s crime file in close-ups of Delon’s expressive face. “I might not look it, but I have lots of imagination,” Tom says to nobody in particular.
Does Philippe get what he deserves? Clement eschews moralising and ignores the homoerotic undertones of Tom’s masquerade of Philippe, but it’s not hard to see why Tom would want what Philippe has – a gorgeous villa in Mongibello, a handsomely furnished apartment in Rome, and the arrogance of privilege. Marge, a budding writer and the only person who seems to care in Plein Soleil’s hardboiled universe, is a bonus.
Highsmith loved Delon’s depiction, but didn’t care for the liberties that the movie took with the ending. Tom’s fate in Plein Soleil might be at odds with Highsmith’s plans for the character, but it fits right into Clement’s vision. The movie’s title appears to have been inspired by WB Yeats’s poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, about an island of beauty and calm where “midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow”. The fantasy is near complete in one of the movie’s most effective close-ups. Tom settles into a beach chair and allows himself a smile that is both boyish and sinister. His hard work, discipline and single-minded focus have paid off, and as he drifts into a dream, he looks every inch the career criminal of Highsmith’s imagination and the future sex symbol of European arthouse cinema.