It turns out that The Talented Mr Ripley wasn’t quite as talented as all that – at least he wasn’t the original talent. Back in 1960, French director René Clément made Plein Soleil, the first adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Clément’s version is the more creepy of the two.
Ripley is an American in Italy, attached to his schoolfriend Dickie Greenleaf who is the son of an American millionaire. He has been charged by Greenleaf Senior to bring Dickie back to San Francisco so he can join the family business. The son however, is a feckless pleasure seeker, who is paying for Ripley’s trip. So, Ripley decides to bump off his friend, frenemy, or cash cow, and assume his identity.
According to Sandra Hebron, the former director of the London Film Festival, talking on BBC Radio 4’s Film Programme, Clément’s film is made more effective because it tells us so little about Tom Ripley. Anthony Mingella’s version gives us a character who is amoral, but who has recognisable motives – greed, jealousy and lust. The French Ripley is more psychopathic because we are never sure if he’s stolen his friend’s identity because he is poor, he hates him, or he is simply bored.
Alain Delon probably makes a better Ripley than Matt Damon – colder, with bluer, more glitteringly dead eyes. Perhaps it is just difficult to think of Matt Damon as anything other than a resolutely nice guy. But none of the characters in either film are particularly pleasant, possibly something to do with Highsmith’s misanthropic personality.
One significant difference between the two films is the way Greenleaf’s murder is handled. In The Talented Mr Ripley an oar is used on a dingy after an argument about Greenleaf’s bad behaviour. The murder is almost accidental and slightly prosaic. The sequence in Plein Soleil is electrifying. Rather than the murder developing out of an argument, Ripley announces his plan to kill the other man while they sail on a yacht. They then have a seemingly ironic, but immensely tense, discussion about this idea. After the murder Ripley tries to control the boat and then dispose of the body as the sails flap and wind howls. Brazenly announcing his intention is far more chilling, and then the chaos on the boat perfectly mirrors Ripley’s state of mind. Walter Murch’s famous sound design for the sequence in The Godfather where Michael Corleone commits his first murder as the elevated train rumbles – then screeches – past comes to mind. And, of course, like Nino Rota composed the music for both films too.
The director, René Clément first directed a short starring the great Jacques Tati in 1936, but it was after the Second World War that he started making feature films. His early films were a great success – Au-delà des grilles (The Walls of Malapaga) in 1949 and Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games) in 1952 both won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. However, by the late 50s French cinema was being shaken up by the innovations of the Nouvelle Vague. For Goddard, Trauffaut and their gang, Clément was part of the cinéma du papa or dad’s cinema – old-fashioned and boring.
It’s hard to think of Plein Soleil as boring. Perhaps it might not be as formally innovative, but the film tells the story with considerable expertise. Also, the hero may not be a would-be gangster who thinks he’s cool of the À bout de souffle variety. Instead, Alain Delon (who was one of the most handsome actors of the era) is cold and calculating and the film is all the better for it.
Like The Talented Mr Ripley the film looks gorgeous. This was the first of three collaborations between Clément and cinematographer Henri Decaë who had worked on Truffaut’s 400 Blows the year before, as well as working for Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Chabrol, and Louis Malle over his career. The heat is almost palpable, shimmering in vivid colours. This is part of the thrill of the film, the sharp contrast between the light of the ‘blazing sun’ (or plein soleil) and the darkness of Ripley’s duplicity and murderousness.
Clément said in a 1981 interview that Plein Soleil is, “is the kind of film you make passionately, where every detail counts.” These details add up to a tour de force of filmmaking.
The4K digital restoration of Plein Soleil is released on Blu Ray and DVD on Monday 9th September. It comes with two extras, René Clément at the Heart of the New Wave is a 67 minute documentary by Dominique Maillet that looks at the making of the film and Clément’s place within the French New Wave, and there is a shorter interview with Alain Delon too.
See the trailer here: