‘Purple Noon’ marked milestone for Clément and Delon

“Purple Noon,” recently released by Criterion, is the prize for FNB’s January-February reader giveaway. Michael Wilmington reviews.                                                                          

Purple Noon/1960/Robert and Raymond Hakim/118 min.

“Plein Soleil,” or “Purple Noon” is a classic thriller and an exceptionally riveting and beautiful movie about desire and cruelty, murder and malice. It’s a smoke-and-mirrors game of make-believe played by a psychopathic killer, a villain from a classic of 20th Century crime fiction – 1955’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by the brilliant American novelist Patricia Highsmith.

Alain Delon (right) plays Tom Ripley, a conman who fools a reckless playboy named Philippe (Maurice Ronet) and his girl, Marge (Marie Laforêt). The movie was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel.

Shot in Italy, we first meet Ripley in the Bay of Naples, on a sailboat, surrounded by blazing sunlight (“plein soleil”). Two good-looking young men are laughing and smiling. The joke is that one of them, a handsome, penniless hanger-on named Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), will kill the other one, a rich, reckless playboy named Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), assume his identity, take his money, and maybe seduce his girl, Marge (Marie Laforêt).

They are both laughing (but Philippe’s eyes are wary, Tom’s predatory), smiling with the special joie de vivre and cruel merriment of the young and careless – the high giddy spirits of, say, Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony planning his criss-cross murder with Farley Granger as Guy Haines in Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” But then Tom really kills Philippe. A knife thrust. A scream. “Marge!” cries the victim, the knife stuck in his chest. When the murder comes, it’s so swift, so effortless, so unexpected, yet so oddly inevitable, that it’s hard to believe we’ve seen what we’ve seen.

Ripley (Alain Delon) is a man trying to live a life that isn’t his.

Released in 1960, the same year as “Psycho” and “La Dolce Vita,” “Purple Noon” was an off-type movie for French filmmaker René Clément, a gifted and highly regarded director, who, by 1960, had won two major Cannes Film Festival awards, two Oscars (for 1949’s “The Walls of Malapaga” and 1952’s “Forbidden Games”) and two Golden Lions at Venice. In 1946, Clement had served as Jean Cocteau’s “technical adviser” (his co-director, some think) on the romantic fantasy masterpiece “Beauty and the Beast.”

Clement was a technical genius who chose challenging subjects. But he had been famously attacked in an influential article by the young François Truffaut. Writing in Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut accused Clement and other filmmakers of being pretentious, over-praised mediocrities. Truffaut was a great filmmaker and a great film critic, but he sometimes said nasty and unfair things (as he admitted in later years) to draw attention to himself and kick up controversy. His dismissal of Clement was one of his bigger critical injustices.

Did Clement take it to heart? Most tellingly, “Purple Noon” is obviously influenced by Hitchcock, whom all the young Cahiers du Cinema critic/directors loved (they called themselves the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians”). “Purple Noon” is a film that most of them would probably have liked to have directed, but didn’t. Couldn’t?

Delon plays a love scene with his reflection in a mirror.

There is, however, a notable deviation from the Hitchcock thematic pattern. “Purple Noon” is not a movie about a wrong man falsely accused of a crime he hasn’t committed, like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” or Robert Donat in “The 39 Steps.”

In “Purple Noon,” Ripley is guilty. He’s a man trying to live a life that isn’t his, a life that belonged to the man he killed. “Purple Noon” is about the idle rich, and Ripley is a conman who wants to be idle and rich. Both Highsmith and Clement are unusually successful in getting us immersed in a story where most of the people are rich and selfish, where the leading man is irredeemably evil and the only really likeable character is Philippe’s abused girlfriend Marge, a writer with bad taste in men.

Ripley is in Italy at the behest of Philippe’s parents to talk Philippe into coming home. Instead, the guys become carousing hell-raising buddies. After the murder, Ripley takes Philippe’s bank records, fakes a passport, forges Philippe’s signature, imitates his voice on the phone, and lays a paper trail of hotel receipts to pretend that the dead man is still alive, still joy-riding somewhere around Italy.

Ripley is the real killer, constantly being mistaken for his own victim. It’s a brilliant Highsmith idea, and one that generates near-constant suspense, especially in the great scene when Ripley, disguised as Philippe, is confronted by Philippe’s suspicious friend Freddy Miles (Bill Kearns). That Tom-and-Freddy chase was also the only great scene in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 American movie version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” with Matt Damon miscast as Ripley. And the only reason that scene was great was because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s marvelously snide performance as Freddy.

There’s a great performance in “Purple Noon” too: the tigerishly seductive Alain Delon, in his first important part. Delon is one of those impossibly good-looking actors who get careers they seemingly don’t really deserve (and that Delon said he initially didn’t want), but whose looks the movies feed on, and whom, it is said, the camera loves.

Delon, a working-class Adonis, is one of the few actors who could play, as he does here, a believable love scene with his own reflection in the mirror. We may not want Ripley to escape, but he generates unusual simpatico for a cold-blooded swindler and killer. And Maurice Ronet, with his haunted eyes and bedazzled smile, is just right as the irresponsible Philippe.

Delon, of course, was wrong for the part of Ripley in one major respect. It is impossible to believe that he (or Ronet) is an American. But in other respects, he’s an apt choice, and once you see him in the part, it’s hard to discard his image. (Damon, by contrast, though he’s played some movie villains, seems inherently too nice a guy for Ripley.)

Clement made the kind of thriller Truffaut would have loved to have made, but never did. And for the rest of Clement’s career, he was often typed as a thriller specialist, because of “Purple Noon,” which became one of the most influential of all French crime/suspense movies.

It deserves to be. “Purple Noon” still plays beautifully, especially in the scenes where Ripley battles the elements after the murder. Two years later, in 1962, a talented young Polish film director, Roman Polanski, made a thriller, set on a sailboat, that reminds you greatly of the bay scenes in “Purple Noon.” (“Knife in the Water” became an international hit and eventually brought Polanski to Hollywood where he made superb mass-audience thrillers like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.”)

I wish Clement had had a few more opportunities like Polanski did. Maybe Truffaut wished it as well. Maybe the maker of “The Four Hundred Blows” wished he hadn’t been so quick to thrust in the knife.

Extras: Interviews with Patricia Highsmith, Alain Delon and Clement scholar Denitza Bantcheva; Trailer; Booklet with a fine essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1981 interview with René Clément.

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

Free stuff from FNB: Win ‘Purple Noon’ from Criterion

Dianna K. is the winner of the December giveaway. (The prize is Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers, a three-disc DVD collection from TCM and Universal.)

For January-February, I am giving away a DVD copy of “Purple Noon,” from Criterion. It’s a classic thriller, directed by René Clément from a Patricia Highsmith novel. The sublime Alain Delon stars, along with Maurice Ronet and Marie Laforet.

To enter this giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post from Jan. 1-Feb. 30. We welcome comments, but please remember that, for the purposes of the giveaway, there is one entry per person, not per comment.

The January-February winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early March. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Also be sure to check your email – if I don’t hear from you after three attempts, I will choose another winner. Your email will not be shared. Good luck!

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

‘Le Cercle Rouge’ is an icy thriller by an immaculate artist

“Le Cercle Rouge” plays Saturday, Nov. 6, at 4 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

Le Cercle Rouge/1970/EIA, et al/140 min./in French with English subtitles

By Michael Wilmington

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) was, in some ways, the Vermeer of the heist movie. A master of classic noir and neo noir, Melville was a cool, sure-fingered expert and an immaculate artist. Like Vermeer, his pictures were deceptively simple and utterly haunting, punctilious and mysterious. And, like Vermeer, he didn’t leave many behind him.

One of the greatest of all Melville’s films, with one of his most spectacular heists, is “Le Cercle Rouge,” a neo-noir which has, as its centerpiece, a spine-chilling depiction of a jewel robbery at the Place Vendome in Paris.

The job is pulled off with rare skill by three strangely honorable thieves, played by three international film stars: ex-convict Corey (played by Alain Delon), escaped prisoner Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) and ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand).

Alain Delon

The movie is about how these three come together, how they execute the robbery, and how they’re finally driven apart – largely through the quiet skill and determination of their relentless police antagonist. Deceptively lumpish, bourgeois-looking Inspector Mattei is played by comedy star André Bourvil.

Mattei is keeping watch over his prisoner, Vogel, on a train journey. But Vogel slips out of his handcuffs and escapes from the sleeper car of the speeding train. Mattei is humiliated, then obsessed with finding Vogel. The broken handcuffs become a psychological link.

Mattei has an invaluable source in Santi (François Périer), a double-dealer and underworld mole, who looks like a ferret in a suit. Santi owns a nightclub that seems to specialize in crooked assignations and ersatz ’50s American movie musical numbers, set to a cool jazzy score by Éric Demarsan. (The chorus girls in those numbers are almost the only women we see in the movie, except for one faithless lover and one cigarette girl.)

The title “Le Cercle Rouge” refers to a story of Buddha, who supposedly draws a red chalk circle and explains to his students that those who are destined to cross paths will do so within the circle, no matter what.

Melville made and released Le Cercle Rouge in 1970, one year after making his World War Two French Resistance masterpiece, “Army of Shadows” (1969) and two years before making his last film (with his last heist), the flawed “Un Flic” (Dirty Money), starring Delon, Catherine Deneuve and Richard Crenna. “Le Cercle Rouge” was his last masterpiece.

Back to Vermeer for a moment. There is one vital quality of Vermeer’s that Melville misses completely, probably never tries for: warmth. Melville’s films noirs are cold, especially when cinematographer Henri Decaë (of Melville’s “Le Samourai”) shoots them. His crooks are cool. They speak little, wear raincoats and fedoras, and smoke cigarettes, like Bogie. His cops are icy. His world is dark: noir to the brim.

Why was Melville so obsessed with criminals, with heists and with heist movies? Maybe because this underworld reminded him of the world that was the French Resistance, in which he had fought during the war.

And maybe it’s because of the one that got away. In the ’50s, Melville was hired to direct the movie that became one of the greatest of all heist movies (François Truffaut’s choice as the greatest of all film noirs), 1955’s “Rififi.” Melville was later fired and replaced by Jules Dassin, who chivalrously refused to take the job without Melville’s consent (which Melville gave). [Read more...]

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter