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The talented Mr Ripleys

Tom Ripley has proven to be an irresistible character for creators and audiences alike—he is a charming sociopath who makes you root for him

Andrew Scott in 'Ripley'
Andrew Scott in 'Ripley'

Fifteen minutes into the second episode of Steven Zaillian’s Netflix miniseries Ripley (premiered April 4), Andrew Scott’s titular 1950s conman has his first encounter with sincerity. Which is to say, the emotions he is experiencing are genuine and have no bearing upon his criminal motives. His mark, bored rich shipping scion Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn), has just walked him through the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples, for over 400 years the home of Caravaggio’s oil painting The Seven Acts of Mercy (1607). So far, we have seen Tom Ripley adopting the mannerisms and pretentions of the New York elite he is pretending to be a part of. This is different, though. This is an up-close-and-personal encounter with unalloyed genius and you can see Ripley being hypnotized, if only for a while. Amused by his trance, Dickie tells him how Caravaggio painted this the year after he murdered a man in Rome. “A pimp whose prostitutes he used as models,” Dickie says. “Then he fled to Malta, then Palermo, painting some of his greatest works on the run. They finally caught up with him here, in Naples. (…) A colorful life and death.”

Ripley is enchanted with the painting and the story because of its considered conflation of art and crime — only a step removed from art in crime, an aspirational thought for the narcissist in him. Sure, he wants to swindle rich fools and worse, but he wants to do it artistically. It is moments like these that give Ripley its signature blend of noir aesthetics and psychological acuity. Zaillian’s black-and-white frames are always beautifully crafted, with some particularly cruel sequences underlining the black humour of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), which the show has been based on. My favorite was Ripley writing to an aunt he hates while visualizing her going through a painful visit to the dentist, dental drills scoring the music for this mini-horror-movie. 

Zaillian’s is the third direct adaptation of Highsmith’s novel. The French-language (with some bits in Italian and English) Plein Soleil/Purple Noon (1960), directed by René Clément, was the first, with Alain Delon starring as Ripley. In 1999, director Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley was released, with Matt Damon in the titular role and Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf. Other Ripley novels by Highsmith (she wrote five in novel, following Ripley from his early 20s up until his late 60s) have also been adapted into films. Ripley’s Game was filmed twice, in 2002 under its original name with John Malkovich playing Ripley and before that, in 1977 as Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, starring Dennis Hopper as Ripley. Ripley Under Ground was adapted into a 2005 German-British-French film of the same name, starring Barry Pepper as Ripley. 

Ripley has proven to be an irresistible character for creators and audiences alike and there are good, solid reasons for this — he is a charming sociopath, one who makes you root for him even as he is leading his victims down the path to annihilation. He wields the psychological manipulation of a grizzly old con artist but also the boyish affability of a much younger man. And while I feel that Zaillian’s adaptation is the most formally brilliant one yet, a couple of the others have their strengths as well. Matt Damon’s finely calibrated performance as Ripley complemented Anthony Minghella’s ‘cerebral pulp’ approach in The Talented Mr Ripley. Damon softened his arrogant-young-savant edge from Good Will Hunting into something much stranger and subtler here — his scenes with Jude Law underline the homoerotic tension in Highsmith’s rendition of the Ripley-Greenleaf dynamic. 

The more malevolent aspects of Ripley’s character were brought to life the best by John Malovich, I feel, in the criminally underrated Ripley’s Game. Malkovich plays the character as kind of an evil twin of the Danny Ocean archetype — at once dapper, globe-trotting criminal and humble, likeable man-about-town. This is also a story that follows an older Ripley, in his mid-40s (same age as Malkovich then). And therefore, the ‘youthful charm’ of the Matt Damon or Andrew Scott Ripley is largely absent here. “I’m a creation,” Malkovich’s Ripley says at one point. “A gifted improviser. I lack your conscience and when I was young that troubled me. It no longer does.” The lack-of-conscience bit is still troubling Ripley’s younger avatars, as is evident in most of the other performances mentioned earlier. Especially Alain Delon, who portrayed this aspect to perfection in Purple Noon. It helped, of course, that Delon was easily the most good-looking actor among this bunch, a future sex symbol in one of his first onscreen roles.

Highsmith’s personal favorite among the Ripley performances she saw was Dennis Hopper’s in The American Friend. In The Talented Miss Highsmith (2009), Joan Schenkar’s biography of the writer, we are shown how Highsmith initially disliked Wenders’ decision to make Dennis Hopper’s Ripley a “modern, no-boundaries, pot-smoking type” in contrast to the character’s fastidiousness as written in the novel. But upon a second viewing the writer changed her mind about the film as well as Hopper’s performance, stating that Hopper had “captured something essential” about the character. 

I would rate Andrew Scott’s performance as the second-best among the lot, not far behind Hopper. The one quibble being that Scott is in his late 40s, playing a distinctly youthful rendition of Tom Ripley — in the novel he is a young man in his mid-20s. This wasn’t a problem with Malkovich who was the same age as the mid-40s Ripley he portrayed. In this era of digital de-aging and other tech-driven trickery, I just wonder if this lacuna could have been dealt with a bit more imaginatively. This is a small complaint, though, and certainly takes nothing away from Ripley’s overall brilliance. I wouldn’t mind another season of Zaillian’s impeccable black-and-white portraits of sun-kissed 1950s Italy, Scott scoping out potential victims on its lazy beaches.           

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