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Purple Noon

Purple Noon
1960 / Color / 1:66 flat letterbox / 118 min. / Plein soleil
Starring Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet, Marie Laforet, Elvire Popesco, Erno Crisa, Bill Kearns
Cinematography Henri Decaë
Production Designer Paul Bertrand
Film Editor Francoise Javet
Original Music Nino Rotta
Writing credits René Clément and Paul Gégauff
Produced by Raymond and Robert Hakim
Directed by René Clément

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Talented Mr. Ripley from a couple of seasons back was a reasonable suspense film that had its good graces and its admirers. Most viewers still don't know that there's another picture based on the same Patricia Highsmith mystery novel - an equally good thriller made 42 years ago, in Italy by French director René Clément. Lovers of noirish fare will probably prefer this foreign original - the plotting is coffin-tight, and the actors include some excellent, unfamiliar faces. Purple Noon was also the star-making role for gallic heartthrob Alain Delon.


Rich American Phillip Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) refuses to come home from Italy, despite his father's dispatching young Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) to fetch him for a $5,000 fee. Phillip is perfectly happy frittering the family money on a yacht and romancing his fiancee, Marge Duval (Marie Laforet). Tom and Phillip spend their time getting drunk and carousing with other friends and acquaintainces on the Italian coast, much to the consternation of the faithful and forgiving Marge. Tom, a pauper living on Phillip's nickel, is an adept con-man, having already convinced Phillip's father that he was an old friend. Phillip admits that his promises to return are empty. But even though they joke about how easy it would be for Tom to kill his 'best pal' and take his place, Phillip has no idea of the schemes that are running through Tom's head.

Purple Noon is a very slick and accomplished crime drama, beautifully put across in all departments. The leading players are excellent, with Marie Laforet intelligent and touching as the duped girlfriend, and Maurice Ronet OK passing as an American, even though everyone speaks French and Italian. Alain Delon, who we're used to seeing in his later films as a stoic icon, here shows us why critics in 1960 thought him the French James Dean and the best new actor around.

The suspense is very powerful ... the story is the Noirish kind of impersonation tale which seldom seems credible in movies, yet works well here, thanks to the absence of pointed direction or dramatic music to telegraph surprises. Without having to resort to contrivances or foolish coincidences, Purple Noon makes Tom Ripley's identity theft a simple matter of nerve. The other characters aren't morons - Neither Phillip, his girlfriend, nor especially his best friend Freddy Miles (Billy Kearns) completely trust Tom, but it matters not. With his special 'talent' for cold-blooded deception, all Tom needs to succeed is some diabolical luck.

Henri Decaë's color photography is splendid. The Italian seasides are beautiful, yet the film never becomes a travelog. Such is the extent of René Clément's expert control, that we are almost immediately pulled into the tale, and the picture's superior production values become a seamless part of the fabric. Not a member of the New Wave, Clément made classics way before (La Bataille du rail, Forbidden Games) and rather good pictures afterward (such as the unjustly maligned Is Paris Burning?). Unlike his trendy contemporary Roger Vadim, his pictures come off as art and not commerce. I would put Clément very high in the ranks of European directors.

The big film noir revival that began in the 1970s brought new attention to the contributions of mystery writers. Patricia Highsmith was previously best known in films for her source original that became Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Both stories have at their center sociopathic 'heroes' who connect homoerotically with successful or wealthy men with whom they would desire to switch lives. Tom Ripley's attraction to Phillip in Purple Noon is nowhere near as explicit as it is in the remake, which split its attention between the thriller plot and the self-destructive Ripley character. Unfortunately, this came off as another permutation of the stock convention of gay characters always becoming villainous psychos, so The Talented Mr. Ripley was a mystery with a dour ending and a character study with few answers. Purple Noon sticks to the crime facts and perhaps more easily leaves a better impression. Also, frankly, Matt Damon is no Alain Delon in the charm or looks departments. You believe Delon can keep his intelligent chums from becoming too suspicious, whereas Damon's snide veneer is so obvious, a baby wouldn't take candy from him.

Savant favorite Romy Schneider makes a brief cameo appearance in the first scene. Already firmly established, she was there because of a relationship with star Alain Delon which reportedly lasted decades, through several marriages, and was a great source of sadness for her. All of which adds to our wish that the villain Tom Ripley will get his just desserts. Purple Noon is such a sophisticated thriller, it has us squirming in anticipation.

Miramax's DVD of Purple Noon is a satisfactory disc which could have been better if the company had seen fit to give it a 16:9 transfer. As it is, the show is colorful and clean, but not all that well-digitized. There are more compresson flaws than there should be. This doesn't hurt the impact of the story, but the picture never pops to life, as does The Young Girls of Rochefort from the same company. An English track is included but is not particularly recommended unless one wishes to hear what the film sounded like when imported to the States.

The original French title, Plein Soleil, appears to mean 'full sun' and may have something to do with the bad sunburn Tom receives early in the film. Nowhere does the disc explain the significance of the English title.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Purple Noon rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 22, 2002

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