Great Movies / Roger Ebert
okay., I didn’t expect thanks.
wiping spit from his face
Tom Ripley is fascinating in
the sense that a snake is fascinating. He can kill you, but he will not
take it personally and neither should you. He is well-educated, has good
taste, is a connoisseur of art, music, food, wine and architecture, can
give a woman good reason to love him, and commits crimes and gets away with them.
I don’t worry about being caught, he says , because I don’t believe
anyone is watching. By anyone, he means cops, witnesses,
Ripley is at the center of five novels written by Patricia Highsmith between
1955 and 1991, which have inspired five movies: Rene Clements Purple Noon
(1960), Wim Wenders The American Friend (1977), Anthony Minghellas The Talented
Mr. Ripley (1999), Liliana Cavanis Ripley’s Game (2002), and Roger
Spottiswoodes Ripley Under Ground (2004); Ripley was played successively
by Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon, John Malkovich and Barry Pepper.
The first four are splendid
movies (the Wenders and the Cavani were inspired by the same novel). The
fifth is unseen by me. Ripley’s Game is without question the best
of the four, and John Malkovich is precisely the Tom Ripley I imagine when
I read the novels. Malkovich is skilled at depicting the private amusement
of sordid characters, but there is no amusement in his Ripley, nor
should there be. Able to project charm and sophistication, capable of
inspiring women to love him, Ripley has a psychopath’s detachment from
ordinary human values. Malkovich (and Highsmith) allow him one humanizing
touch, an occasional curiosity about why people behave as they do. At the
end of the film, when a man saves his life, Ripley can think of only one
thing to say to him: Why did you do that?
Malkovich has the face for Tom Ripley. For the movie he has lost weight
and is lighted and photographed to show the skull beneath the skin. Ripley’s
eyes when he is angry are cold and dead, as in an early scene where he is
insulted by the host at a party. When he is not angry they are simply objective,
although sometimes, even during intense action, Ripley will allow his eyes
to glance aside for a second. He is like an actor glancing offstage, reminded
that there is life outside his performance. When he gives pleasure, for
example by taking his wife Luisa (Chiara Caselli) to buy an antique harpsichord, he
regards her in an unsettling way, not sharing the pleasure but calculating
its effect. Very rarely he permits himself a childlike grin, as when remembering
the triumph on the face of a dying man. When involved in violence, he has
a way of baring his teeth, and you can sense the animal nature beneath the
Ripley has always been an enigma in the crime fiction genre, because a thief
and murderer does not usually get away with his crimes in novel after novel,
and seem on most days like a considerate lover and a good neighbor. Malkovich's
philosophical Ripley is closest to Highsmith’s character in the way
he objectifies his actions. Why is he requested to kill a man? Because I
can. He arranges for the man who insulted him, a family man dying
of leukemia, to be offered $100,000 to commit murder. Why did he do that,
the man asks him. Partly because you could. Partly because you insulted
me. But mostly because that’s how the game is played.
Cavani, Italian, born in 1933, is a good choice to direct
a Ripley film, because she is comfortable with depravity. Her best-known
film is The Night Porter (1974), starring Charlotte Rampling
as a survivor of the Nazi death camps, who finds one of her former
guards (Dirk Bogarde) working in a hotel, and begins a sadomasochistic
relationship with him. I did not admire the film, but it shows
her using some of the same objectivity about perverted values
that is central to Ripley’s Game.
For surely Ripley is perverted.
Consider. He walks into a party being given by his neighbor Trevanny (Dougray
Scott). He overhears himself being insulted: He is an American who has purchased a
superb Palladian villa near Venice and ruined it with too much money and
no taste. No matter what the man says to squirm out of his rudeness, Ripley
replies with one word: Meaning? Their verbal duel leaves Trevanny silenced
and shaken; But there is more. Ripley was
involved three years earlier in a profitable art theft in Germany. Now
his hapless British partner Reeves (Ray Winstone) has been threatened by
their victims; he tracks Ripley to Italy and is trembling with fear. Do
you want to tell me what you want, Ripley asks him, or do you want a truffling
pig to find you dead in a month
Reeves wants a murder to take
place. The payment is $50,000. Ripley says he thinks he may have the man
for the job, and doubles the money. He has Trevanny in mind. There is a
twisted logic in his reasoning: Since Trevanny is dying, he has less
to lose, and every reason to want money to provide for his wife and child.
And if he is forced to commit murder for money, he will no longer be able
to talk with much conviction about Ripley’s wealth or bad taste.
The murders take place on a train, and play with
a macabre precision just one gruesome step this side of slapstick. Hold
my watch, Ripley tells Trevanny just before the killing starts, because
if it breaks I’ll kill everyone on this train. At one point there
are five people, three apparently dead, in the same train toilet. We are
poised between a massacre and the Marx Brothers. It never used to be so
crowded in first class, Ripley observes. Although the murders seem to be
successful, Reeves and violence follow Ripley back to Italy, and in a masterful
sequence using the vast lawns and interiors of the villa, Ripley prepares
to greet any visitors. He is not usually capable of being surprised, but
watch his eyes when Trevanny turns up to help out.
The movie has some nice ironic
parallels. It balances Trevanny’s insults about Ripley’s American
money and taste with a compliment from the uncouth gangster Reeves: He’s
a Yank. But a Yank with class and culture. Winstone gives such lines a spin
that makes him the most cheerfully fearsome of villains.
Women are an enigma in
Ripley’s world. He treats his wife with studious but not passionate
regard, sends her out of the way when danger threatens, has apparently found
a woman who never wonders how he makes his money. About Trevanny’s
wife Sarah (Lena Headley) he is well, considerate, to a degree. Sarah doesn’t
like or trust Ripley. When she walks in on a bloodbath, its curiously touching
the way Trevanny tells her, Its not what you think.
||If this film had been released as intended
in 2002, it would probably have made my best ten list. Incredibly,
it never opened theatrically in the United States; it finally
turned up on cable in late 2003. One story widely reported
is that its distributor Fine Line, a division of New Line,
was so preoccupied by the phenomenon of its Lord of the Rings
trilogy that staff couldn’t be spared to focus on it.
What American audiences lost was one of Malkovich’s most
brilliant and insidious performances; a study in evil that teases the delicate
line between heartlessness and the faintest glimmers of feeling. When Ripley
smiles in the last shot, he hasn’t lost his bearings as a psychopath,
but he has at last found something in human nature capable of surprising
and even (can it be?) delighting him.