Our frugality backfired.
Initially we felt good about deciding to forego spending $21.50 to see a Saturday night showing of Snowpiercer. Unfortunately our alternative mall wandering turned into a Criterion Blu-ray buying spree at Barnes & Noble. We ended up with several good movies, but didn’t save any money.
One of our new acquisitions was Purple Noon, the 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. We had watched the 1999 version a few months before, and seeing this earlier French take was a delightful exercise in contrasting styles.
Viewing different versions of the same story always provides a fascinating look into the unique perspectives, techniques and emphases of the film makers. Fans of classics often balk at the prospect of a remake, afraid perhaps that the first will be lost to the present.
When a movie is good to begin with, what makes a remake beneficial?
In the ideal scenario the new perspective offers a fresh take and a film sufficiently unique to stand alone without falling into cheap mimicry, which is the last refuge of a lazy creative. At times the new effort will surpass the first and set the standard even higher.
Compared with Anthony Minghella’s later film, René Clément’s Purple Noon is considered the more faithful adaptation of Highsmith’s story (which I have not read). Minghella adds at least two principal characters—Cate Blanchett’s Meredith Logue and Jack Davenport’s Peter Smith-Kingsley.
Clément also skips the exposition regarding how Ripley is hired by Greenleaf’s father to track down and bring home his prodigal son. This exclusion makes the earlier film a little tighter, but it also feels like a crucial part of Ripley’s motivation is missing or only hinted at.
The 1960 movie follows Tom Ripley through the machinations of his crime in a fairly straightforward way. On the other hand, Minghella mirrors the depths of Ripley’s strange and twisted soul and ends up with a movie that somehow feels a little more complicated, but also familiar. Overall the plotting of the 1999 movie feels more satisfying.
The main difference between the two movies comes largely from the shift in sympathy earned by Ripley and his friend Greenleaf (somewhat inexplicably named Philippe Greenleaf in Purple Noon and Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley.) The second movie almost completely reverses the empathy of the characters.
In Clément’s film, Greenleaf is a bully. He abuses Tom’s friendship and tramples over his girlfriend, Marge—tossing her devotion out to sea with the pages of her manuscript. On the other hand, Jude Law portrays Dickie Greenleaf as an inimitably charming wastrel. He is spoiled, lazy and sometimes even careless with people, but he is not cruel.
Alain Delon’s Tom Ripley is calculating and grasping. His affection for Greenleaf turns vengeful after repeated persecutions. However, even as he completes his revenge by stealing Marge’s affections, he is, to quote the Criterion liner notes, too “impossibly beautiful” to be sinister.
By contrast Matt Damon brings the creepy.
Clément’s Ripley wants what Greenleaf has; Minghella’s Ripley wants to be Greenleaf. Delon’s Ripley uses Greenleaf’s voice, possessions and name to get what he can’t have. Damon’s Ripley tries to consume Dickie’s personality to be who he is. He is the most monstrous of parasites trying to lose his past by taking on the identity of another.
Minghella’s movie addresses Ripley’s homoerotic urges as well, which explains some of Ripley’s crimes, but also makes it more disturbing to watch him destroy the people he loves the most with such deliberate and calculating coldness. It is the unhealthiest of loves because it is all grasping need. Greenleaf is unable to return Ripley’s affection either in kind or degree, and the relationship is doomed and destructive from the beginning.
The revised vision of Marge portrays this change in empathy best. In the first film, she can’t help but fall in love with Ripley by the end. In the second movie she never really trusts him. She vacillates between suspecting him and needing him, but she never fully believes him.
From the first uncorrected mistaken identity, Ripley gets sucked deeper and deeper into the morass of his own deception—at once both caught and careening down a dangerous path of desire and false entitlement. There is no happy ending possible, but even as that inevitability becomes more apparent, the greater our longing to see Ripley succeed.
He is undone by his own overreaching ambition and unchecked desire. He brings out the psychopath in us all and at least a little bit of longing to see him get away with it. However, the relief turns to horror as he gets away only to meet the one person who can undo it all.
The one unarguably superior element of the 1999 film is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Miles. He is perfect in his smug, arrogant disdainful condescending version of Freddie Miles. He is wholly despicable, brilliantly obnoxious.
Even though they hate each other Freddie is more like Tom’s probable future than Dickie. Freddie has all of Tom’s calculating cleverness and ruthlessness, but without his need, without his poverty.
If Tom succeeded in being rich—or if in an alternate reality had been born rich—he would be more Freddie than Dickie. Tom with confidence and self-assurance would find himself petty, cruel and thoroughly repulsive.
As with most Philip Seymour Hoffman performances he is always the best thing on the screen. He never steals a scene because he does not need to. He owns them.
It is not really a question of one film being better, which makes this an excellent example of a good remake. The original movie remains relevant and lovely maintaining its position. The remake offers a unique perspective that keeps it from feeling redundant or superfluous.
Whether original or remake, there is always room for a good movie, and that should be the only criterion that matters.