Criterion // 1960 // 117 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 17th, 2012
"A thrilling saga of seduction, identity theft, and murder."
Patricia Highsmith is as American as apple pie. Born in Texas, she was raised in New York City. She got her start as a writer for American comic books -- and yet, her novels have always had an appeal to European auteurs. Her first book, Strangers on a Train, was famously adapted by Brit Alfred Hitchcock, while her fourth, The Talented Mr. Ripley, was adapted by French director René Clément as Purple Noon. Highsmith's international intrigue, sharp psychological portraits, and stark violence translate well to a director versed in the French Resistance during World War II. It also gave a role to a beautiful young actor -- Alain Delon -- and made him a star. Now Clément's classic adaptation has been released in a fantastic hi-def Purple Noon (Blu-ray) edition from the folks at Criterion.
Tom Ripley (Alain Delon, Le Cercle Rouge) is a young man sent to corral the wealthy playboy Philip Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet, Elevator to the Gallows) into coming back to San Francisco from time in Italy. Ripley, though, is not the simple peasant that he seems; he has designs on Greenleaf's life, and when he murders him on an isolated boat, he begins a campaign of impersonation that will leave him rich.
Perhaps it is simple jealousy that leads us mere mortals into suspecting the worst of those lucky enough to have been born with extraordinary wealth or extraordinary beauty. Purple Noon is only too happy to feed that feeling. Philip Greenleaf is the worst sort of playboy. He's got too much money, doesn't respond well to family obligations, and mistreats his lover Marge. He gallivants off to Rome whenever he feels like it and his fidelity to Marge be damned. Ripley initially seems like he might be his opposite -- a poor but beautiful companion who is a bit jealous of Greenleaf's riches but would prefer he do the right thing. Then, of course, we learn that Ripley is a sociopath who wants to take over Greenleaf's life. While Greenleaf's money masks his corrupt personality, Ripley's beauty is similarly disingenuous.
The chief pleasure of Purple Noon is the game of cat and mouse we watch unfold. First it's between Ripley and Greenleaf. In the novel it was made completely explicit that Ripley had been hired by Greenleaf's father. Purple Noon starts with us already in Italy, so even from the beginning, it's questionable if Ripley is actually sent by the elder Greenleaf (and Greenleaf's continual deferral of a return to San Francisco makes it difficult for us to establish Ripley's bona fides). Greenleaf seems game to play with his opposite, especially with Marge around to make things interesting, but it becomes more and more obvious that Ripley is playing for keeps.
Once Ripley dispatches Greenleaf, the cat and mouse is between Ripley-as-Greenleaf and everyone who might shatter the thin illusion that Ripley is portraying. Though it's fun to watch Ripley make good his impersonation -- we see him practicing Greenleaf's signature and using his typewriter to avoid detection -- it's just as much fun watching him squirm as mutual friend Freddy arrives in Rome hoping to find Greenleaf or when Marge comes looking for her erstwhile boyfriend. Once the police get involved, it's a more dynamic game that switches from tense waiting to all-out action that leads to a conclusion that's satisfying (though not as bold as the one found in Highsmith's novel).
Though the suspense aspects of Purple Noon are top notch, they're aided greatly by Delon. He's young and gorgeous and totally convincing as a young psychopath. His portrayal is perfect, as he gradually decides to become Greenleaf and must navigate the world that he's initially outside of in the hopes of fitting in. That world is beautifully photographed by Clément. From the superb seaside villages to the piazzas of Rome, the whole film is bathed in warm light and well-chosen locations. Even if you're utterly uninvolved in the fraud perpetrated by Ripley, there's a joy in looking at the beautiful Italian vistas.
This is René Clément's hi-def debut in the Criterion collection (and, if I'm not mistaken, the first of his color films as well). All the stops have been pulled out in preparation. It admit to a certain trepidation when this 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer first came up. The opening shots on the water looked a little noisy, like the grain wasn't being handled well. After those first handful of shots, though, the transfer settled down into a thing of beauty. Closeups, especially of Delon, are simply gorgeous. Detail is strong, colors are spot-on, and grain is perfectly handed. Print damage is minimal, and the transfer maintains an impressively filmlike quality.
The LPCM 1.0 French soundtrack isn't quite as impressive, but that's not the fault of this Blu-ray. Dialogue (which is mostly in French, but includes some Italian and English as well) is clean and clear throughout. No hiss or distortion mar the soundstage, while the music is well-balanced. English subtitles are included.
Extras include a series of interview. They start with a 1971 interview with Highsmith discussing her characters, her stories, and the adaptations of her work so far. Alain Delon appears in a 1962 interview talking about his film career to date, including his work with Clément. Finally, the longest interview is with historian Denitza Bantcheva, who talks for almost 30 minutes on Clément's history as a director, the film culture of France in the late fifties/early sixties, and the production of Purple Noon in particular. The film's trailer is also included. The Criterion booklet includes an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and an interview with Clément.
Purple Noon is not a fast film. It's kind of a slow-burn film that uses its beautiful scenery to lull viewers into staying for its suspenseful tale of fraud. Those looking for a The Bourne Identity-like tale of deception and impersonation will be disappointed
Purple Noon is a gorgeous, and a gorgeously photographed, adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's famous novel. The film rightfully made the beautiful (and talented) Alain Delon a star, and fans can appreciate the film anew thanks to this excellent Criterion Blu-ray. The film itself is worth a rental for fans of Highsmith, Clément, or Delon, and the transfer and extras make it easy to recommend for purchase to fans.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated