Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Patricia Highsmith II: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Plein Soleil/Purple Noon (Directed by Rene Clement)

The second part of Patricia Highsmith’s 1988 interview from Sight And Sound. She discusses other cinematic adaptations of her books including the Ripley series - the best of which is René Clément’s stylish 1960 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley - Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) - starring Alain Delon as the pathological Ripley who ingratiates himself into the lives of the rich and idle. 

Several of Highsmith’s favorite versions of her works have been for television: a West German adaptation of Deep Water, and a Quebec retelling of several short stories. She thinks Le Meurtier (Enough Rope, 1963), from her 1954 novel, The Blunderer, is ‘a jolly good film,’ and she is negotiating now to sell rights for a remake. She must choose between competing bidders: an Italian producer and French filmmaker, Claude Chabrol.

‘Lately I ask for 4, 5 ,6-page treatments from [potential] buyers of my books. I turn down plenty of them because they aren’t inspired.’ Le Meurtier, directed by Claude Autant-Lara, moved Highsmith’s New York setting to Southern France. ‘I hope this time it will be set in California,’ she says. And why? A character in The Blunderer is a sadistic New Jersey policeman who commutes into New York and beats up murder suspects as part of his investigations. ‘In a way, I made a mistake,’ Highsmith admits, ‘because a New Jersey policeman can’t operate that way in New York. But in California, he can move between different counties.’

In 1952, under the nom de plume Claire Morgan, Highsmith published The Price of Salt, a novel of lesbian love, notably radical in its day for having a happy ending. The heroine, Therese, rejects her boyfriend (who is given to quoting from A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man) for a passionate new life in the arms of sophisticated Carol. This was Highsmith’s only overtly gay novel prior to her new Found in the Street, which is set in the casually bisexual New York art world. Critics, however, have noted homosexual underpinning in Highsmith’s many tales of unusual male friendships, especially the four Ripley novels. Tom Ripley is constantly mistaken for being ‘queer.’ He likes to attend all-guy parties and to masquerade in other men’s clothes, particularily the garments of males who obsess him. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, he develops an undeniable crush on Dickie Greenleaf. When Greenleaf spurns him, Ripley kills the young man, By the fourth novel, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, her hero, Tom, has committed eight murders (by Highsmith’s count) and got away with all of them.

‘I don’t think Ripley is gay,’ Highsmith says adamantly in Toronto. ’He appreciates good looks in other men, that’s true. But he’s married in later books. I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department. But he makes it in bed with his wife.’ In The American Friend, an idiosyncratic reading of Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, Wim Wenders made Ripley (Dennis Hopper) into a bachelor once again. ’Ripley has some nice friends though,’ Wenders told an interviewer. ’He’s not a solitary and he’s not a homosexual. Not explicitly. But the way he handles Jonathan has a lot to do with homosexuality.’ When these comments were quoted to her, Highsmith counters, ’Ripley is married. And he’s not lost. He has his feet on the ground.’ As for Wenders, Highsmith says, ’He mingled two books for The American Friend. One of them he didn’t buy.’ (Wenders’ frame story concerns forged paintings, a plot fragment borrowed, uncredited, from Ripley Under Ground).

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
Highsmith met Wenders before The American Friend, when he tried to buy film rights to one of her books. According to Wenders, the novels he was interested in, Cry of the Owl and The Tremor of Forgery, were already optioned. Highsmith suggested he read the one she had just finished writing. ‘It was Ripley’s Game,’ said Wenders, ’and I liked it from the beginning.’ And Highsmith liked Wenders. ‘There’s something about him that’s OK. His artistic quality, his enthusiasm.’ The American Friend she concedes, has a certain ‘stylishness,’ and she thinks the scenes on the train are terrific. Also, she liked Wenders’s Paris, Texas. But, back in The American Friend, she is confused by Dennis Hopper’s highway cowboy rendition of Ripley. ‘Those aren’t my words,’ she says of his philosophical soliloquies.

Highsmith thinks that handsome Alain Delon was excellent as Ripley in Plein Soleil/Purple Noon (1959), Rene Clement’s adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, though she was jolted by the ending - not hers - in which Ripley is caught after throwing the murdered Dickie Greenleaf overboard. But perhaps she says, Strangers on a Train’s Robert Walker might have been the best Ripley of all, if he had lived. Alas, Highsmith has become bored in Toronto talking about the movie versions of her novels. Finally, she says, film directors can do what they want with her books, once she has signed the contract. Especially since she isn’t interested in doing the scripts herself. ’I started screenplays two or three times, and I can assure you that I failed. I don’t think in the way a playwright thinks. So if people have bought something of mine, they know by now that I will decline writing it for the movies.

Anyway, I don’t want to know movie directors. I don’t want to be close to them. I don’t want to interfere with their work. I don’t want them to interfere with mine.’ She rarely sees movies. When she does, it is usually to catch up, such as on a jaunt to the Locarno Film Festival near her home. A decade ago, Highsmith was president of the jury at the Berlin Film Festival. ’I was not particularily good at it,’ she remembers. ‘I hated cracking the whip, and these juries turn into political things. Some fellow from the Third World kept hammering for prizes for a Communist film which was rotten.’ An obvious final question. Does Highsmith have a favorite movie of all time? ’No.’ Not Citizen Kane or Casablanca? ‘No, no,’ she says again, but then she smiles to herself. ‘Maybe Gone With the Wind - and it’s a great book as well.’ -

Patricia Highsmith interviewed by Gerald Peary.

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