The Alain Delon of 1960, when he was 25 years old, would rank among the most dashing leading men in cinema history—the word “beautiful” would not be a stretch in describing him. And yet there’s an opacity to those blue eyes of his that’s ideal for the role of Tom Ripley in René Clément’s Purple Noon, which calls on him to murder and deceive, and pass into another identity with the chilling ease of a shape-shifter. The irony embedded in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the Patricia Highsmith novel on which the film is based, is that Ripley’s need to be someone other than himself is explicable. He’s talented, after all, an exceedingly good-looking man with a skill set immense enough to forge signatures, imitate voices, and keep up an elaborate ruse that has him literally stepping into another person’s shoes. The mystery of Highsmith’s novel and Clément’s film comes from gazing at this sad, sociopathic creature and trying to locate the soul that his actions have rendered more obscure and unfathomable.
Delon and Maurice Ronet play American friends in Italy—friendly acquaintances, really, but enough to where Ronet’s wealthy father has offered Delon $5,000 to bring his son back to San Francisco to take control of the family business. But Ronet has no intention of ending his decadent vacation on his father’s dime, and Delon cares little about collecting the bounty if he’s allowed to go along on the ride. While Delon’s homoerotic feelings for his friend are barely submerged, his clingy intensity eventually becomes too much for Ronet and his girlfriend (Marie Laforêt). When Ronet decides to give Delon the heave-ho, Delon stabs him to death and tosses him off the deck of his sailboat. Once he reaches port again, Delon has opted to assume Ronet’s identity and the opulent lifestyle that comes with it, all while keeping Laforêt and the authorities at bay.
Rescued from obscurity by Martin Scorsese, who had it restored and re-released in 1996, Purple Noon is a daylight noir, drawing a bracing contrast between the sun-kissed beauty of Italian waterways and city squares and the restless, deceiving, murderous habits of a man desperately clinging to his new social status. Highsmith’s novel was adapted a second time, equally well, by Anthony Minghella, with Matt Damon as Ripley, but Damon’s motives were more clearly drawn from his romantic desire—or, failing that, the bourgeois lifestyle his friend’s money affords. Delon’s Ripley shares those impulses, but they’re not as baldly visible, and the more time Clément spends with him, the less knowable he becomes. Purple Noon is as sinister and amoral as the darkest crime thriller—that it looks like a travelogue makes it all the more unnerving.
Key features: A new half-hour interview with Clément scholar Denitza Bantcheva joins archival interviews with Delon and Highsmith, and the liner notes include an unearthed chat with Clément about Purple Noon in 1981.