‘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.

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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!

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The Noir File: Hawks, Hemingway, Bogie and Bacall Have it

By Michael Wilmington

A noir-lover’s guide to classic film noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The times are Pacific Standard (listed first) and Eastern Standard.

Saturday, July 21

Bogie and Bacall create one of the most magical moments in movies.

5 p.m. (8 p.m.): “To Have and Have Not” (1944, Howard Hawks). One of my all-time favorite movies is this crackling adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel of boating and gunplay, reset in wartime Martinique and legendary for its incendiary love scenes between co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. (They met on the set here and later married.) Bogie is at his toughest and most likeable as Harry Morgan, a charter fishing boat captain torn between Vichy government thugs and French partisans.

The sensational 19-year-old Bacall plays singer/adventuress Marie (a.k.a. Slim), who memorably asks Harry “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” The supporting cast includes piano man Hoagy Carmichael, Marcel Dalio (“Grand Illusion”), Dan Seymour and Walter Brennan (great as Harry’s pal, Eddie the Rummy). Two Nobel Prize winners, both friends of Hawks, were among the writers here: original author Hemingway (whose book was considerably changed) and screenwriter William Faulkner.

Tuesday, July 24

7:15 a.m. (10:15 a.m.): “Strangers on a Train” (1951, Alfred Hitchcock). Two strangers meet on a train: social-climbing tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and charming rich-kid psychopath Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Since they both have someone “ruining” their lives (Guy’s estranged wife and Bruno’s father) Bruno proposes, seemingly playfully, that they swap murders. Guy thinks it’s a joke, but Bruno is dead serious. One of Hitchcock’s best: a superb noir adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s classic literary thriller, with an amazing performance – blood-chilling, hilarious and strangely moving – by Walker. Ruth Roman, Leo G. Carroll, Marion Lorne and Hitch’s daughter Patricia Hitchcock are in the supporting cast. Raymond Chandler was one of the screenwriters.

9 a.m. (12 p.m.): “Jeopardy” (1953, John Sturges). Barbara Stanwyck, desperately trying to save endangered hubby Barry Sullivan – trapped by an accident and the rising tide under a Pacific Ocean pier – is herself kidnapped by Ralph Meeker, a ruthless outlaw with a yen for Stanwyck. A real nail-biter, directed by John Sturges (“The Great Escape,” “The Magnificent Seven”). Scripted by Mel Dinelli.

1:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m.): “D.O.A.” (1950, Rudolph Maté). Quintessential noir. Edmond O’Brien, as an accountant visiting San Francisco, is slipped a dose of slow-acting poison; he has only a day to find his mysterious killers. With Luther Adler, Pamela Britton, Beverly Garland and Neville Brand. Co-scripted by Russell Rouse.

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‘Strangers on a Train’ brings out the bad in the best of us

Farley Granger and Robert Walker

Strangers on a Train/1951/Warner Bros. Pictures/101 min.

A friend of mine once went on a second date with a guy who showed up wearing saddle shoes. Let’s just say there wasn’t a third date. If only he’d seen 1951’s “Strangers on a Train.”  Alfred Hitchcock understood the importance of footwear and it shows in this stellar film.

He starts the story by contrasting the shiny, two-toned spats of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) with the sensible black dress shoes of Guy Haines (Farley Granger) as each emerges from a Diamond cab. We follow these parallel footsteps as they board the same train, hence the title.

These brief shots contain the crux of the film: Model citizens often hide hard-core badness and the most unsavory renegades and reprobates can surprise you with a virtue or two (especially if we count charm and fashion sense as virtues).

Marion Lorne

Despite their differences, Bruno and Guy both have monkeys on their backs. Bruno is a spiffy playboy with psychopathic tendencies. Besides drinking and gambling, he spends his time hatching schemes for space travel and blowing up the White House. Even though Bruno has his wealthy and wacky mother (Marion Lorne) wrapped around his little finger, his father (Jonathan Hale) isn’t so flexible. In fact, he keeps threatening to have Bruno “taken care of, if necessary, put under restraint.”

Guy is a pro tennis player who wants to marry his dream girl Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), daughter of Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll). Hitch’s daughter Patricia plays Anne’s little sister, Barbara. Unluckily for Guy, he’s already married to venal and unfaithful Miriam (Kasey Rogers, credited as Laura Elliott).

So, during their train trip, Bruno strikes up a conversation with Guy, telling him: “I certainly admire people who do things.” Over drinks, smokes and a lamb-chop lunch, Bruno proposes a daring, if absurd, solution to both of their glitches: If Bruno murders Miriam, that would leave Guy free to marry Anne. In exchange, Guy would bump off Mr. Anthony. Guy laughs it off, but Bruno takes it as mutual pledge and proceeds to carry out his part of the deal, trailing Miriam to a carnival and murdering her.

When he hears the news, Guy’s shocked, but if he tells the police, Bruno will claim that Guy was an accomplice. Besides, he had motive. As the police investigate, Bruno pressures Guy to fulfill his part of the plan.

Guy resists, but Bruno won’t back down and turns into a bit of a stalker. Bruno also has an ace in the hole: he nabbed Guy’s engraved cigarette lighter when Guy left it behind after their lunch on the train. Guy may lack Bruno’s warped brilliance but he pushes back when cornered and he’s determined to set things right.

If you don’t love “Strangers on the Train,” I’ll be shocked. It’s a gloriously suspenseful story, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay, but most of that was trashed and rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde, with uncredited help from Ben Hecht. (Whitfield Cook adapted.) Hitch and Chandler apparently had a hate/hate relationship. [Read more...]

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