The iconic poster art for René Clément’s Plein Soleil (1960) depicts Alain Delon, the quintessential romantic leading man of French cinema, clutching the wheel of a sailing boat, stripped to the waist, sweating under the blazing heat of the Mediterranean sun. It is a glamorous image of wealth and toned masculinity, yet there is a steely determination in Delon’s eyes that hints at something dark and devious beneath the attractive surface. This is because Plein Soleil finds Delon portraying Tom Ripley, the coldly charismatic anti-hero of five existential literary thrillers by Patricia Highsmith, and a man whose amoral actions are committed entirely free of conscience.
The character of Ripley, a conman whose desire to live vicariously through others often entails manipulative mind games and murder, has appealed to filmmakers as diverse as Clément, Wim Wenders and Anthony Minghella because of his ability to continuously reinvent himself, adopting new guises and absorbing the traits and nuances of others into his own ever evolving persona. Much as directors jump between genres, experimenting with alternative stylistic sensibilities as a means of avoiding being pigeonholed by critics and second-guessed by audiences, Ripley is always reinventing himself, leading cinematic interpretations to vary from Dennis Hopper’s aggressive alpha male in cowboy gear in Wenders’s The American Friend (1977) to Barry Pepper’s flamboyant drama student in Roger Spottiswoode’s sadly little seen Ripley Under Ground (2005). The fact that Ripley not only emerges unscathed, but also advances economically from each adventure, only makes him a more alluring prospect for directors seeking a suitable vehicle with which to explore moral ambiguity within the framework of the contemporary thriller. Highsmith’s novels may be written in the third person, but they offer a speculative insight into the psyche of the sociopath, and the urgency with which the author outlines Ripley’s thought process serves to emphasise the extent of his criminal cunning. Highsmith once stated that she had the feeling that Ripley himself was actually writing, and that she was merely typing; Plein Soleil captures the unique quality of her prose by keeping Delon’s scheming sociopath centre stage, with every detail, no matter how seemingly insignificant, being incorporated into his master plan, with everything slowly but surely conforming to his self-involved world view.
Plein Soleil is adapted from Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first entry in her ‘Ripliad’, which would later be filmed under its original title by Minghella. Ripley has left a life of poverty in San Francisco to relocate to Italy to reside with Philippe Greenleaf, the heir to a fortune who has absconded to Europe with his girlfriend Marge, an aspiring writer, to enjoy a life of leisure at the expense of his industrialist father. Having been mistaken for a former childhood friend of Philippe’s, Ripley has been sent to Italy by the playboy’s father to convince the wayward son to return to the United States, only for Ripley to be entirely open with Philippe about his assignment, and accepted into a clique of young and affluent expatriates. Philippe has no recollection of their earlier ‘friendship’, but does not perceive Ripley to be dangerous, instead dismissing him as a fantasist and finding amusement in his abilities with mimicry and forgery. During a yachting trip, Ripley causes a rift in the rocky relationship between Philippe and his girlfriend, which results in Marge departing the vessel, leaving Ripley to stab Philippe to death and dump his body into the water. After returning to port, Ripley travels to Rome and assumes Philippe’s identity, perfecting his signature, affecting his mannerisms, and becoming comfortable in his clothes, whilst also evading the attentions of the local police. Ripley immerses himself in his victim’s life to such an extent that, rather than simply impersonating Philippe, he actually becomes him.
Clément’s adaptation succeeds as an emotionally detached study of a sociopath in action, and his immersion into an alternative identity. Clément dispenses with the first act of the novel, which was set in the United States and detailed how Ripley came to be employed as an emissary by the Greenleaf family, instead plunging into Philippe’s opulent lifestyle, with Ripley already established as part of his social circle. Highsmith’s novels are acute social satires of the American class system, but Clément is less interested in the complacency of the idle offspring of the nouveaux riches than he is in the manner in which Ripley takes on Philippe’s life. Ripley is too in control to have a multiple personality disorder, but exhibits the ability to shift from one identity to another at a moment’s notice, even within the confines of his own persona. Therefore, the naïve, innocent ‘Tom Ripley’ who plays the fool with a blind man’s cane for Philippe’s amusement, comforts the deeply distressed Marge, and is interviewed about Philippe’s disappearance by an Italian police detective, is an entirely different psychological construct from the Tom Ripley who has committed cold-blooded murder, and is able to persuasively insist that he has been touring the Swiss Alps in his car, in the absence of a more substantial alibi. In the novel, Ripley adopts the rigorous techniques of a method actor, actually spending a night in a car in order to authentically capture the feeling of the experience so that his alibi will sound more convincing when he uses it. An early scene in Plein Soleil, which is all the more chilling for the relaxed manner in which it is performed, shows Ripley testing his impersonation of Philippe in front of a mirror, changing his clothes, then his hair, then his voice, as he puts together an alternate identity, layer by layer.
In the final pages of Highsmith’s novel, Ripley is travelling to Greece, having unjustly inherited part of the Greenleaf fortune, but is contemplating how to best manage his new-found wealth in order to avoid suspicion, still anxious that the police may be waiting for him in Athens with a warrant for his arrest, and unable to enjoy his freedom. It is Clément’s ability to encapsulate this self-contained tension that makes Plein Soleil so suspenseful; Ripley is constantly planning, yet adapting, working every scenario to his advantage and going to elaborate lengths to keep Philippe ‘alive’ for as long as he needs him to be, checking into a hotel under his identity, writing letters with his typewriter, contacting Marge by phone whilst ‘in character’, faking a trip back to Mongibello, and making it appear to everyone, with the exception of the suspicious Freddie, that he is Philippe’s trusted friend and the only one who is still in contact with the ‘missing’ playboy. By trading his previously gauche manner for Philippe’s more assertive attitude – perhaps the true triumph of his transformation – he is able to seduce Marge, although it is not entirely clear whether Ripley actually desires Marge, or simply sees her as an another aspect of Philippe’s life that he needs to assimilate.
The same story would form the basis for Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), a handsomely mounted melodrama, which cast Matt Damon in the title role and was positioned between a prestige period picture and the first instalment in a possible franchise. In Plein Soleil, Ripley is already comfortable with his criminal instincts, calmly explaining to Philippe how he intends to steal his money before murdering him, but Minghella seeks to explain and, to an extent, justify the actions of Highsmith’s anti-hero by delving into his background. In both Plein Soleil and The Talented Mr. Ripley, the central character is portrayed by a young leading man on the verge of major stardom; Alain Delon had only appeared in five films prior to Plein Soleil, while Matt Damon was looking to capitalise on his Oscar-nominated performance as a troubled maths genius in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997). However, there are distinct differences beneath the superficial similarities.
With his bland all-American good looks and well-mannered demeanour, Damon fits Highsmith’s description of Ripley as a ‘vaguely handsome young man who has at the same time the most ordinary, forgettable face in the world’ (quoted by Andrew Wilson in Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith), and his performance suggests that Ripley’s actions stem from social marginalisation, and from his sexual attraction to Dickie (Jude Law), as Philippe was originally named. Minghella’s emphasis on Ripley’s sexuality, which is a subtext in the novel, adds to the character’s awkwardness, exemplified by a scene in which he attempts to make advances towards Dickie while the latter is taking a bath. Although Delon does play Ripley as being inexperienced and insecure, this is mostly a façade, and it is simply Philippe’s life which he desires, not the playboy himself. Murder is a last resort for Damon’s Ripley, who attacks Dickie when his true feelings are rebuffed, and kills out of self-defence when the object of his desire fights back; Delon’s Ripley views such acts as means to an end, and actually has an appetite for murder, as suggested when he takes a bite out of an apple following his murder of Philippe, and devours a roast chicken after another killing.
Later Ripley novels, and Liliana Cavani’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game (2002), would find the character living comfortably on his French estate, cultivating civilised interests, sufficiently settled in his own skin that he could pursue twisted pleasure by playing with the lives of others rather than actually adopting them. Plein Soleil, with its gorgeous cinematography by Henri Decaë almost allowing its thrillingly cynical narrative to masquerade as a sun-drenched travelogue, explores a criminal so audacious in his ambition that he successfully steals that which should be intangible: personal identity.
Watcher the trailer for Plein Soleil: