The “Austere Wickedness”* of Alain Delon in “Purple Noon”
The Villain: Tom Ripley
The Movie: “Purple Noon” 1960
My husband refers to Alain Delon as “farcically good-looking,” and, really, Delon is so good-looking, it’s practically an insult. He was a mere 25 when he made “Plein Soleil” (known in English as “Purple Noon” for no good reason I can find) with director René Clément.
“Plein Soleil” (which translates as “Full Sun”) is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. In it, the father of Tom Ripley’s childhood friend Dickie Greenleaf (Philippe in the film) dispatches young Tom to Italy to bring Greenleaf fils home (to San Francisco, naturally), in exchange for $5,000.
This was Delon’s first big movie, and even if he weren’t very good, you can see why. But Delon is shockingly good. Delon’s Tom Ripley is not just youthful, he is a criminal novice. Much of the pleasure of both Patricia Highsmith’s first Ripley novel and of “Plein Soleil” is watching Tom come into his own as a sociopath.
Ripley and Philippe
Once in sun-drenched Italy, Tom enjoys the company of the rich and careless Philippe, or at least he enjoys helping Philippe spend his money. But Tom is eager for that promised $5,000. Unlike Philippe (Maurice Ronet), Tom does not come from money. Rather, he has a genius for insinuating himself into other people’s lives, and being whomever people expect him to be. Tom’s murder of Philippe a third of the way through the film is not merely—not even mostly—because Philippe won’t be a good boy and go home. In both the novel and the film, there is an uncomfortable, competitive homoerotic something-or-other going on between Tom and Philippe. If the desire is mostly on Tom’s side, Philippe does
nothing to discourage it. Philippe is thoughtless in the way only rich people can be—other human beings and their feelings are not quite real to him. Philippe toys with Marge, a woman he appears to genuinely care for, as much as he tests Tom, to see how much humiliation he will take in exchange for that elusive $5,000. More than Tom wants Philippe, more even than Tom wants that $5,000, however, he wants to be Philippe. Or to be a much-improved version of him—a kinder, more considerate Greenleaf. And so Philippe has to go.
How does Tom get away with two cold-blooded murders—first Philippe and then the unappealing Freddy, an American pal of Philippe’s who sees more than Tom can afford for him to—not to mention an awful lot of forgery? Tom is so slight, and despite Delon’s “almost unearthly perfection,” so unassuming, so unthreatening. He actually tells Philippe he’s going to kill him, and until the moment Tom stabs him, Philippe doesn’t believe he will.
A Slight Menace
However physically slight, Delon can radiate menace, as he does in Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece, “Le Samourai” (1967), but here uses himself as bait—vulnerable, pretty, socially and sexually inferior to the confident and masculine Philippe. It’s a tightwire act of a performance. Tom isn’t interested in being Tom Ripley, at least not as the impoverished and apparently inferior creature he is at the beginning of the film. Instead, Tom tries out other identities, primarily Philippe’s. There is an enormously uncomfortable scene during which Tom tries to join in a make-out session Philippe is having with a woman they’ve picked up. Ick.
I’ll Be You
More pointed is the scene shortly after, back at Philippe and Marge’s apartment. After a typically inept attempt at a serenade, Tom is kicked out of the room so that Philippe and Marge can neck in private. Tom retreats to Philippe’s bedroom and begins trying on his clothes.
Here, the Tom Ripley we’ve met disappears behind a suitcase, and when he reappears, he is well on his way to being the other Ripley—both the man he was meant to be and somebody who can become another man as easily as a reptile sloughs off a layer of useless skin. Perhaps these are the same person.
He is a forger not merely of signatures but of whole identities. Part of the genius of this scene is that once Ripley is looking in the mirror, we can see Philippe’s feet and legs behind him in the mirror. Ripley is imitating Philippe based on his observations of Philippe, Philippe is watching Ripley’s imitation, and we are watching both. This is Philippe’s first chance to escape his fate, but he fails to sense the danger in Tom’s role-playing, precisely because he sees Tom as pathetic. It’s an identity Tom finds useful for Philippe to believe in, right up until he stabs Philippe and tosses his body into the sea.
Some reviewers, including the nearly infallible Roger Ebert, complained about the ending of the film, which appears to wuss out—having Tom arrested, whereas in the novel, he escapes, and carries on escaping, to our discomfort and not-so-secret enjoyment, in the subsequent Ripley novels.
In this last scene, Delon’s Tom looks so happy, so confident, finally, that I always find it hard to believe he is going off, unknowingly, no less, to his downfall. Delon plays the end the way it should have ended, even if Clément is hiding some policemen around the corner. Delon’s is not the smile or the gait of a man about to be arrested. It is the carriage of a man who knows he is about to move smoothly, imperceptibly out of the way of danger, again.