Tuesday, October 2

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Favorite Movie #26

1999 Drama
From Paramount & Miramax
Directed by Anthony Minghella

Matt Damon
Gwyneth Paltrow
Jude Law
Cate Blanchett
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Jack Davenport
James Rebhorn
Sergio Rubini
Philip Baker Hall

Just so we know where I stand, I think Ripley is a masterpiece or if I am backed into some corner by a naysayer, then a near-masterpiece.  There is nothing I want more from my intellectual thrillers than what is offered here.  And what is offered?  Oh, I am so glad you asked.  What is offered is a visually opulent, elegant, complex murder story that is so beautifully acted and intelligently written.  Its last act is disturbing.  Well, ok, I was disturbed but along with it, I was utterly fascinated and took a deep breath, which I must have been holding for two hours. 

Speaking of talented, Patricia Highsmith wrote a stunning novel on Tom Ripley in the mid-1950's and then penned several sequels.  The first film, Purple Noon (1960) starred French heart throb Alain Delon.  After The Talented Mr. Ripley was made, John Malkovich played him in 2002's Ripley's Game and there was Ripley Under Ground in 2005 with Barry Pepper.  So Ripley has some mileage and with good reason.  It is a very well-written story and in the case of this film, thank you, thank you, thank you to Anthony Minghella for writing a magnificent screenplay in addition to directing.  Here is one time where shouldering those duel responsibilities paid off most handsomely.

I've decided it's difficult to write this on Ripley without giving away large chunks of the plot.  I would find a way to do it, however, if I were talking about a new film.  So I will issue a spoiler alert here if one is necessary.  If you haven't seen the film, then stop reading this very minute and alert Netflix.  You won't be sorry.

Matt Damon's portrayal of the enigmatic, unscrupulous, audacious Tom set my head spinning.  It was actually the first time I had paid much attention to Damon and to this day I say it's the best job he's ever done.  As Ripley he was charismatic in a spooky way.  A couple of days after seeing it I had to go thru Ripley detox to feel any semblance of returning to a normal life.  I wondered if I would still trust people.  Now that some sort of suspicious nature took life in me, would it go away?  I had to remind myself that it was, after all, just a movie.  (Thanks, Mom.)

Tom is a young man not doing so well in life, dispirited by it all with self-esteem plummeting quickly.  Tom has put on someone else's Princeton jacket in the hopes of attracting some attention at a party.  By chance, he meets a man at the party who says his son Dickie Greenleaf went to Princeton.  Father is displeased with the son who is living the life of unbridled luxury and leisure in Italy.  It is quickly decided that Tom would go to Italy, allowance in hand, and talk Dickie into coming home to the States.   

On the voyage to Europe, he meets rich girl, Meredith (played with great relish by the sensational Cate Blanchett), and finds himself telling her that he is Dickie Greenleaf.  Read that again, if you must, because it is the entire point of where we're going here.  He can at least have a nice voyage pretending to be a rich boy spending time with a rich girl.  It's about the fantasy.  Tom says that a fake somebody is better than a real nobody.

Maybe one reason I so love this film is because I understand the thinking a bit at this point.  Do know that Ripley goes one helluva lot further than I ever have.  But in those same days as Highsmith was writing her novel, I, a kid from lower middle income folks at the time, was spending some pretty highfalutin times among some of the Hollywood gentry on and around Mapleton Drive (see my posting Betty at the Bookstore if you've not read it) and getting a good glimpse of the life of privilege.  When Tom gets to Italy and ingratiates himself with Dickie and his lover Marge, it's very intoxicating.  Tom quickly realizes this is a life he'd like to live forever.  How could he have known then that the path to the lap of luxury would be littered with dead bodies?

If I had just starting paying attention to Damon with this film, I was already quite aware of Jude Law.  I had seen all but one of his films.  It was important that Dickie Greenleaf was adorable and adored.  After soaking up the Italian sun for the longest of vacations, he needed to be blond, tan, oiled up, possess some blistering white teeth and fill out a speedo.  Get Jude Law's agent on the phone.  Very good idea.

Dickie is rich and spoiled and lives on a whim.  His greatest love is of spontaneity.  He is the original if it-feels-good-do-it boy.  Folks are drawn to him for his outgoing ways, although he is utterly irresponsible.  It is soon apparent that Tom would like to know Dickie, um, betterUnfortunately, that isn't going to happen and in it's way, it sets the tone for the end of Act 1.

Tom bs's Dickie and Marge, played winningly by... oh wait, you Gwyneth haters may not think winningly.  Let's digress for a sec.  I know there are a lot of Gwyneth Paltrow detractors and I am not altogether sure I can point the definitive finger as to why that is, but I realize it's there.  I have always liked her, thought she's a beauty and admired her for her dress and deportment.  She seems like she is to the manor born.  Maybe that's what folks don't like.  I see it but don't mind it at all.  Maybe this is why she was thought of for this role.  Marge likes her amenities and drinks on the patio at 4 p.m. and the good life she shares with Dickie.  Dickie likes her too although it hasn't stopped him from getting one of the locals pregnant.

Paltrow has a range of acting she must cover.  She has to change, especially in her treatment of Tom.  At first she is sunny and sweet and quite likes him, including him in their lives.  But after Tom kills Dickie (oh my, was that too sudden?  I didn't mean to...), Marge becomes very suspicious, turning grim in the process, and learns to hate Tom.  Paltrow and Damon have some wonderful scenes together and gorgeous displays of temperament.

In the film's most pivotal scene, Tom and Dickie are in a sailboat off the coast a bit.  They start arguing, each saying things they shouldn't be saying.  Tom wrongly psychoanalyzes Dickie, saying he knows Dickie really loves him (not!) and then Dickie spits out some stingingly painful barbs.  He also says their friendship is over while Tom's face says it all... his dream life is coming to a close.

With Dickie spewing hurt, Tom hits him with an oar, perhaps not to kill him but to quiet him in some insane way.  But as blood poured off  Dickie's face, Dickie said more hateful things and Tom clubbed him to death.  There was a beautifully filmed portrait of stillness after the death.  It was an image of a quiet sea, a sun going to sleep and with the camera coming up over the side of the motionless boat we see Tom cradling a dead Dickie in his arms (ah, at last) with pools of blood all around them.  It was eerie.

There were many wonderful scenes and shots.  Frankly we can start with the gorgeous Italian vacation I was on while watching this film.  Cameras went to many Italian locations, a virtual feast for the orbs but also essential in creating various moods for the story.  Indoor scenes in the second half of the film aided in creating a mood for mayhem. 

Earlier a train compartment scene has Dickie with his eyes closed and Tom, sitting next to him, mistakenly thinking he is asleep while Tom sniffs Dickie, wanting to luxuriate in the other's scent.  Dickie casually opens his eyes and takes Tom to task for his weirdness.  Smartly done.

There is a scene of Tom gaily (make that gayly) prancing around the room, half naked, but with some of Dickie's items draped around him.  Then we see Dickie in the mirror, watching, a bit horrified, and it's exciting to watch him react.  Part of Dickie's arrogance is that while he expects to be idolized and put on a pedestal, none of it is sexual.  Still he gives the besotted Tom the wrong signals.

At a time when things are going well, there's a scene in a nightclub, all feeling very Jack Kerouac-ish, where the boys sing.  I loved it and it was then I realized how important music was to the picture.  And how many Italian movies do you know without a lusty score?  Then Tom channels his Chet Baker and sings My Funny Valentine, more or less to Dickie, and seems to be singing the words he's always wanted to say.  Well done.

There's a scene in the ocean, just a few yards offshore, when most unexpectedly a Madonna on a platform is lifted up out of the water with several people underneath it.  As they walk onto the sand, a dead girl pops up out of the water.  I've never forgotten this scene.

There's a wonderful moment when Tom is going to kill Marge and walks toward her while dressed in a white bathrobe.  He has a straight razor in his pocket and as their argument escalates, blood seeps through the pocket.  A wonderful touch.

The second act of the story begins with Tom assuming Dickie's identity after hiding the body.  He realizes he can continue to live the lifestyle he has enjoyed and in fact more so if he becomes Dickie.  One problem is that Marge knows the truth and an elaborate cover-up is devised to keep her off balance.  An obnoxious friend of Dickie's, one fey cad named Freddie,   played amusingly by Hoffman, also knows the truth.  When Freddie gets a little too lippy and Tom's hoax is found out, Tom kills Freddie, too.  The entire scene leading up to the skull-crushing demise was delicious cat and mouse stuff that, when done this well, fires up my pistons.

There was even a bit of comedy when Tom gets rid of Freddie's body and I thought a bit of a tribute to Hitchcock.  And you know, this novel was written at the time Hitchcock was in his prime and it seems so right for him.  Perhaps he didn't want to make a film of another Highsmith novel since he'd already made Strangers on a Train, which bears a slight resemblance to Ripley.

Another fragment of this disguise is that Meredith re-enters the picture and she thinks Tom is Dickie.  At all costs Tom must keep Meredith from meeting Marge and there are wonderful scenes at your disposal.

Freddie's death brings on the final act of the film.  As is supposed to happen in all good thrillers and mysteries, things start to unravel.  A new character is introduced, Peter, played perfectly by Jack Davenport (currently playing the director on TV's Smash).  He is a friend of Marge's.  He becomes integral to Act 3.  Despite saying as much as I have, I am not going to reveal the ending.  I hate telling endings.

I will say this much.  In one of the several times I saw this film in theaters, I went with a gaggle of gay guys.  There probably were eight of us.  While we were walking out, we discussed it.  All but one trilled their affirmative responses but the last one said he hated it.  To my mind's eye, he really hated the ending, the one I'm not going to say anything about, because it is troubling and sad and unexpected.  I don't consider it a bad ending at all.  In some ways it's a rather brave one, all things considered.

I think Tom Ripley is one of those movie villains that is destined to be remembered forever.  He may not quite be Hannibal Lechter, but he deserves to be in the same fraternity.  And bravo once again to Matt Damon.

And one more attaboy to writer-director (the late) Anthony Minghella.  I applaud him more for Ripley than I do his big applause film, The English Patient.  Every scene in Ripley was important.  Each individual scene was a story that stood on its own... each had a beginning, middle and an end.  Transitions were seamless, the overall telling fluid.

Take a peek:

Staying for the Credits

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