Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

The Talented Mr. Ripley

“Once one becomes interested in the game, there is no knowing where one will stop.”

–from Les Liaisons Dangereuses

I’d originally planned this month’s column along the lines of those A & E Biography theme weeks, where each day of the week might feature a different documentary about notorious gangsters or celebrated altruists.  My cheery theme was going to be “American psychos,” featuring three of contemporary cinema’s most sinister characters.  I’ve kept the theme but, unfortunately, I’ve had to scratch one sociopath off my list.  I feel kind of bad about that, because he was in the only movie of the three that was directed by a Canadian.  The problem was that the protagonist of Mary Harron’s adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’s controversial novel American Psycho just wasn’t scary enough.  Harron’s film does have its moments of social satire and very black humor. It’s a wicked commentary on a society that sacrifices community to personal vanity.  Choosing the right watermark for a business card is given the same emotional weight as choosing an axe or a nail gun for a murder weapon.  But the killer in American Psycho (played by Christian Slater) seems shallow and stupid. More symbolic than visceral.  He’s always on the verge of implosion, an object of pity rather than of terror.  He’s also out of his league in a match-up with the Colombo-like private eye played by Willem Dafoe. Nice try, but no bogeyman

So rather than an unholy triumvirate, I’m left with a twisted dyad.  Kalifornia is an ice storm of cold violence.  The Talented Mr. Ripley is a long spiral into hell.  The protagonist of the former is utterly repellent, killing with little motive and zero remorse.  The Talented Mr. Ripley features the boy next door carrying a weight of guilt that would do Dostoevsky proud.  For both, murder is a survival mechanism.

Let’s start with the tragic.  Class warfare.  The very rich can often lead lives hugely destructive of the not-so-rich whose paths cross their own.  Wealth is often the eye of the hurricane; the wealthy remain untouched in the center while the less fortunate are drawn into the whirlwind and destroyed or cast off broken and bewildered.    This scenario usually plays out in a European setting–with its monarchies, its aristocracies, its jet sets, and its backdrops of villas and canals and casinos.  Two splendid examples of the genre are Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons and Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove (both with excellent screen adaptations by Milos Forman and Iain Softley, respectively).

For a while, it seems that the hurricane metaphor will suit The Talented Mr. Ripley nicely. Matt Damon plays the role of Tom Ripley, an ambitious young nobody who, thanks to a borrowed Princeton jacket, is mistaken for a young man much above his actual station in life.  He calls life’s bluff and winds up getting himself sent on an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy to track down and bring home the decadent son of an American millionaire.

Despising his father, the wayward son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), conspires with Tom to supplement his lifestyle by ripping off even more of the old man’s money than he’s accustomed to doing.  Dickie initiates Tom into the high life of sun, sea, and jazz.  The game is fun for a while. Tom gets used to living beyond his means.  Dickie gets to play a bit of Professor Higgins to Tom’s Eliza Doolittle.  Then things begin to fall apart.  Dickie’s a wastrel but no fool; he has pegged Tom for the imposter he is.  As soon as Tom’s novelty wears off, Dickie’s looking for a new toy. He’s a serial dilettante, using and discarding people and fashions.  Tom, who thinks he’s been making new friends, and is sexually attracted to both Dickie and his fiancée (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), finds himself shut down and shut out.

Bad move.  Tom’s not about to be whirled into oblivion.  Time to switch metaphors.  Instead of a sybaritic hurricane, think of Dickie Greenleaf’s playboy lifestyle as a well-oiled pleasure machine.  The gears turn smoothly; they are made of steel and grind up anything soft that’s pulled inside, like hearts and flesh.  Tom Ripley should be more grist for the mill. Instead, there’s a core of desperation in Tom that proves indigestible.  He starts ripping the machine apart from the inside, clawing his bloody way out.  What began with a lie about a borrowed jacket becomes a waking nightmare with an accelerating body count.  Tom’s tragedy is that he’s fully aware that he’s becoming a monster, without being able to comprehend how or take any action to stop the transformation.  The first murder could have been blind rage.  What about the second?  The third?   Where will it end when you’ve killed what you love as well as what you hate?  Tom Ripley has the worst of two worlds:  he has a sociopath’s instincts for survival, and a sane man’s capacity for guilt….

The Talented Mr. Ripley is like watching a minor Greek tragedy.  Kalifornia is a contemporary Titus Andronicus.  Popcorn anyone?  [Author’s Note: the portion of this column dedicated to Kalifornia is entered as a separate entry for the website.]

 

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

Because I knew where things were headed this time around, I don’t think I reacted quite as strongly to the film on this second viewing.  I still found it disquieting, however, like watching an episode of Midsomer Murders or Endeavour where the killer, against all expectations, walks away free at the end with no one the wiser.  Director Anthony Minghella and cinematographer John Seale do an excellent job of playing off the National Geographic settings against Tom Ripley’s homicidal social climbing and Dickie Greenleaf’s vicious narcissism.  The homoerotic elements to the story stood out more sharply for me this time, giving an added dimension to Ripley’s disgust at his own lack of status.  At the same time that he’s trying to create a new identity by stealing Dickie’s, Ripley is struggling with his sexual identity.  Matt Damon is in good company in taking on a role that’s attracted several high-profile directors and actors:  Alain Delon in Plein Soleil (1960), directed by René Clément; Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), and John Malkovich in Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game.

Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver strong, nuanced performances that manage to feed Ripley’s lust, envy, paranoia, anger, and hunger.

Nowadays, of course, Ripleyesque anti-heroes are everywhere.  The rogues’ gallery would include The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Deadwood, American Psycho, and The Silence of the Lambs.  But when Patricia Highsmith first published The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955, her novel would have caught many readers completely unprepared.  I’d love to read some of the contemporary reviews.  The so-called “Ripliad” would eventually consist of five novels, the last appearing in 1991.  As I’m often forced to do in these updates, I confess that I have yet to read any of Highsmith’s work.  Shame on me.  The Talented Mr. Ripley is on my desk as I write this.  I’m curious about the many Imdb User Reviews that found the film markedly inferior to the book.  I might expect the novel to be different, but on the strength of its performances I’d guess that the movie holds its own for me.

Tragically, director Anthony Minghella died in 2008 of a hemorrhage, age 54.  Philip Seymour Hoffman died in 2014, age 46, of complications from drugs and alchohol.

Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Cate Blanchett show no signs of putting the brakes on their high-profile acting careers.  Damon and Paltrow have one Oscar apiece; Blanchett has two Oscars, Law is a two-time nominee for an Academy Award.  Between them, they have well over 300 acting credits on Imdb.

Available on YouTube?   No, but available for rental or purchase through YouTube & iTunes

Movie Information

Genre: Crime | Drama | Thriller
Director: Anthony Minghella
Actors: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport
Year: 1999
Country:
Original Review: July 2001

Cyberspace:

Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste – Epitomes of 1920s Weimar Republic Excess – Dancing on Film

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PejxewpJfM

Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste Dancing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfOy_fFGcb8

Anita Berber dancing on the edge of the volcano

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlJBmLENmeM

The Life of Anita Berber  David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlJBmLENmeM

ANITA BERBER Göttin der Nacht / In der Reihe Die Goldenen 20er

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hK_av20BpEI

Posted by John Hall with excellent introductory notes, the first link features brief clips from German silent films that provide a glimpse of one of the outstanding performance artists of the time.  There are some static shots for about the first minute or so, but then you start to enter into a strange new world.  This is Expressionist artist Otto Dix’s Berlin.  Dix painted an extraordinary portrait of Berber, seen in the third clip.  It’s sad how little of Berber’s and Droste’s work has survived on film.

The second clip is a slightly longer version of the first, with Russian text and different music.

The third and fourth clips are photo montages of Berber & Droste.

The last clip features a contemporary dance recreation of Berber and Droste’s shared performances.

 

Merchant Ivory: 50 years of filmmaking history

http://merchantivory.com/about

A website dedicated to the work of one of the most talented teams of filmmakers in the history of cinema.  Producer Ismail Merchant passed away in 2005, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala passed away in 2013, and at age 89 James Ivory became the oldest winner of a competitive Academy Award on March 4, 2018 (Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me by Your Name (2017)).

 

“It’s customary for a boy to have his father’s watch.” Gregory Peck, 1916 – 2003

https://brightlightsfilm.com/its-customary-for-the-boy-to-have-his-fathers-watch-gregory-peck-1916-2003/?_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8OCXhU1NJzKZvfxiYjFlQ9oFYB22fAZ-VtSXRxoM9PFzHcTWlu1e8b4pdLKC5PO0-qmJYq-lkS3P8kRrS_N8muV_U_bA&_hsmi=63727263&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=BLFJ&utm_content=63727263

From the Bright Lights Film Journal, this is Scott Thill’s tribute to an iconic actor.

Films Worth Talking About:

Fight Club, Magnolia, The Matrix, Star Wars – Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, 10 Things I Hate About You, Eyes Wide Shut, Office Space, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Boys Don’t Cry, Election, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, The Virgin Suicides, The Best Man, The Iron Giant, American Pie, all About My Mother, Galaxy Quest, Cruel Intentions, Being John Malkovich, Notting Hill, American Beauty, Three Kings, Bringing Out the Dead, Princess Mononoke, The War Zone, Topsy-Turvey, The Insider, The End of the Affair, The Boondock Saints, The Bone Collector, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The Cider House Rules, Angela’s Ashes, Arlington Road, Sleepy Hollow, Titus, Stigmata, The Faculty, Stir of Echoes, [El mismo amor, la misma Lluvia], Fantasia 2000, October Sky, Double Jeopardy, Kikujiro, Bicentennial Man, Big Daddy, East is East, Music of the Heart, The General’s Daughter, Never Been Kissed, Peppermint Candy, The Haunting, Stuart Little, True Crime, The Other Sister, Butterfly, The Thirteenth Floor, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Ravenous, EdTV, Payback, Mystery Men, The Muse, idle Hands, Limbo, Audition, Ratcatcher, Beau Travail, Two Hands, Romance, Dick, Autumn Tale, Cookie’s Fortune, The Hurricane, Mansfield Park, Tarzan, Toy Story 2, Perfect Blue, After Life, The Straight Story, The Limey, A Moment of Innocence, Go, [Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels], Any Given Sunday, The Thomas Crowne Affair, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Bowfinger, [Girl, Interrupted], Pokémon: The First Movie, The Mummy, Superstar, Runaway Bride, Analyze This, The Wood, The Green Mile, Varsity Blues, Dogma, Summer of Sam,  She’s All That, Deep Blue Sea, Jawbreaker, Rosetta, eXistenZ, Blast from the Past, The Astronaut’s Wife, Message in a Bottle, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, The Ninth Gate, Entrapment, 8mm, The 13th Warrior, The World is Not Enough, Felicia’s Journey, Twin Falls Idaho, eXistenZ, Three Seasons

The Bigger Picture

FilmsPlein Soleil [Purple Noon] (1960), The American Friend (1977), Ripley’s Game (2002), Carol (2015), Strangers on a Train (1951)

Music:  anything by Gabriel Yared

Books:  Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train, Carol

The Word on the Street

As a huge fan of Rene Clement’s “Purple Noon” I came to Minghella’s version of Patricia Highsmith’s story with suspicion and an irrational predisposition to dismiss it. Well, I was wrong. The talented Mr. Minghella perpetrated a magic trick. The film stands on its own as an entertaining, creepy, thoughtful, beautiful to look at piece of film-making. Jude Law throw us for six, we’re not suppose to feel attracted to the selfish Dickie Greenleaf, but we do. His scrumptious performance is alluring, seductive. He is a scene stealer of major proportions.   [marcosaguado]

Duality — the ability to be one person in a certain situation, and another in another — is the underlying and pervading theme of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It is a theme that sparks the central conflict of the picture, that influences each of the main character’s decisions and actions. Each character in the film is either pretending to be something else, or playing directly to a superficial identity. The film unravels each of the character’s motivations for doing so, and in so doing strips away the layers of reality we construct for ourselves. Characters either uncover the explicit duality of their lives (Cate Blanchette’s willingness to admit that she travels under another name), or have it uncovered for them (Tom Ripley). When each character is laid bare, when each character is most fully themselves, when each character stops acting and pretending, they are undone….

Each of the characters has a tragic flaw that they try to ignore, or play to, a flaw which undoes the perfect lives they all pursue.
The ironic twist is that Tom Ripley is the catalyst for all of this — yet, his tragic flaw is that he has no flaw. While each of the main characters has an identity they are running from, Ripley HAS no identity to speak of. He starts out pretending, and he pretends through the entire film. Who IS Tom Ripley? Even Tom himself wants to know.  [nathan19]

There have been some people who think Matt Damon is too colorless here. In Clement’s adaptation, that might have been true, but the point here is Ripley is SUPPOSED to be a nonentity, a blank page waiting to be filled (thus lines like “I always figured it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody,”….    [SKG-2]

The bookend to the first murder is the ending (MAJOR SPOILERS), with the last killing in a ship’s cabin. Once again Tom kills someone he loves, only this time, with cruel irony, the victim actually loves him back and the killing isn’t a spur-of-the-moment reaction but deliberate, as Tom finds no other way to cover up his crimes. The Pyrrhic victory of the villanous protagonist, who has managed to fool everyone but is now broken and alone, is one of the most memorable movie endings of recent cinema.   [petra_ste]

At its root, Ripley is an example of how fear and rejection can press a normally smart, affable person over the brink into monstrosity, a surprise considering the playful tone of the first act. Matt Damon, still fresh from his breakout in 1997’s Good Will Hunting, shows great versatility in the leading role (essential for such a complicated character), smoothly masking that twitch in his eye from all but the viewing audience. It’s one of those films where you’ll feel wrong about your rooting interest, knowing all along that the guy absolutely does not deserve a happy ending, with the final moments serving as your comeuppance.    [drqshadow-reviews]

The most important scene in this film, I think, is when Tom (Matt Damon) and Meredith (Cate Blanchett) attend the opera in Rome. On stage is the duel scene from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’. Lenski, Onegin’s closest friend, has offended Onegin who has challenged him to a duel. Lenski, the simple musician, sings the last bit of his aria and then the two men do their paces and Onegin shoots Lenski dead.
The key to Tom Ripley’s enigmatic character and motivations in relation to the opera is; in the 19th century literature, in this case Pushkin, Onegin represented a type of man that was becoming extinct for various reasons, mostly cultural as a result of political disasters, the usual story. Onegin is what the Russians called a “lishny chelovek” or “superfluous man.” A man with sensitivity and intelligence but doomed to have these qualities corrupted for want of a proper outlet in the society of his time. That is Tom Ripley.
The interesting thing is, Tom Ripley is also Lenski, the simple musician, the lover, the sentimentalist. So, the operatic scene in this film symbolizes the self-immolation of Tom Ripley in the form of Eugene Onegin, the superfluous man, killing Lenski, the simple and gifted musician. This suicide explains a lot in the context of what ultimately happens in this film. It explains why Ripley does what he does on a fundamental level.
Ripley has been left with no place to stand by the society of the plutocracy whose children, represented by Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), Marge, his fiancé (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Meredith the society girl from New York (Blanchett). All action stems from this fundamental twist in Ripley’s psyche.   [pekinman]

Because I knew where things were headed this time around, I don’t think I reacted quite as strongly to the film on this second viewing.  I still found it disquieting, however, like watching an episode of Midsomer Murders or Endeavour where the killer, against all expectations, walks away free at the end with no one the wiser.  Director Anthony Minghella and cinematographer John Seale do an excellent job of playing off the National Geographic settings against Tom Ripley’s homicidal social climbing and Dickie Greenleaf’s vicious narcissism.  The homoerotic elements to the story stood out more sharply for me this time, giving an added dimension to Ripley’s disgust at his own lack of status.  At the same time that he’s trying to create a new identity by stealing Dickie’s, Ripley is struggling with his sexual identity.  Matt Damon is in good company in taking on a role that’s attracted several high-profile directors and actors:  Alain Delon in Plein Soleil (1960), directed by René Clément; Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), and John Malkovich in Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game

 

Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver strong, nuanced performances that manage to feed Ripley’s lust, envy, paranoia, anger, and hunger.

 

Nowadays, of course, Ripleyesque anti-heroes are everywhere.  The rogues’ gallery would include The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Deadwood, American Psycho, and The Silence of the Lambs.  But when Patricia Highsmith first published The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955, her novel would have caught many readers completely unprepared.  I’d love to read some of the contemporary reviews.  The so-called “Ripliad” would eventually consist of five novels, the last appearing in 1991.  As I’m often forced to do in these updates, I confess that I have yet to read any of Highsmith’s work.  Shame on me.  The Talented Mr. Ripley is on my desk as I write this.  I’m curious about the many Imdb User Reviews that found the film markedly inferior to the book.  I might expect the novel to be different, but on the strength of its performances I’d guess that the movie holds its own for me.

 

Tragically, director Anthony Minghella died in 2008 of a hemorrhage, age 54.  Philip Seymour Hoffman died in 2014, age 46, of complications from drugs and alchohol.

 

Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Cate Blanchett show no signs of putting the brakes on their high-profile acting careers.  Damon and Paltrow have one Oscar apiece; Blanchett has two Oscars, Law is a two-time nominee for an Academy Award.  Between them, they have well over 300 acting credits on Imdb.

…exquisitely scored (Gabriel Yared channels Bernard Herrmann with such professional austerity that one would think that Yared is Herrmann’s reincarnation)….   [TheFilmFreak1]