Ripleys

[This post first appeared on Lawyers, Guns & Money, April 26, 2024]

I have an embarrassing reading habit to confess. A book can sit in my TBR for months, years, decades even, but the thing that will finally persuade me to read it will be the news of a forthcoming film or television adaptation. In the case of Patricia Highsmith's classic novel of psychological suspense and identity theft, The Talented Mr. Ripley, I have somehow outdone myself. I first heard about the book in my teens, when it was adapted to the screen by Anthony Minghella. And so, with every honorable intention of reading the book before watching the movie, I somehow set both aside for a quarter century. It was only this year, when the news broke that Steve Zaillian would be producing a prestige miniseries adaptation of the novel for Netflix, that I finally kept my promise.

As is often the case with such extreme procrastination, once the mental block that kept me from picking up The Talented Mr. Ripley was broken, I overcompensated wildly. In the last month, I have read the book, watched the movie, watched the miniseries, and have even made a start on Highsmith's Ripley sequels. This essay, therefore, comes to you with the zeal of a convert. The Talented Mr. Ripley is—surprise, surprise—a very good book. Highsmith probably wasn't the first to tell a crime story from the perspective of the criminal, or to place her readers in the head of an unapologetic, murderous psychopath. But she set a bar that the many authors who have used similar tropes in the intervening seventy years have struggled to clear. Her Ripley is intelligent, but often blind to his own intentions. Sensitive, but capable of shocking brusqueness. Yearning, but in deep denial about the type and significance of his desires. Often, in the space of a single sentence, he will slide effortlessly from fussy disdain towards his crimes, to an airy dismissal of their significance, to fierce pride in having pulled them off and gotten away with them.

The novel's by-now famous plot sees Tom Ripley, a New York conman with pretensions of gentility, dispatched to Europe to persuade a wealthy dilettante, Dickie Greenleaf, who has planted himself in a quaint Italian seaside village with the aim of becoming a painter, to return home and take over the family business. On arriving in Italy, Ripley quickly insinuates himself into Dickie's life, to the dismay of the other man's sometimes-girlfriend Marge Sherwood. When Marge persuades Dickie to try to gently drop Ripley, our hero instead kills Dickie, and then assumes his identity, setting himself up in Rome as an urbane, cultured gentleman of leisure.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is famously a story of both sublimated sexual desire and class envy. Tom wants Dickie, but he also wants to be him, to move through the world with the same ease, facilitated by accommodating bank clerks, hotel concierges, and doormen. What I wasn't prepared for before reading the novel, however, is how much these two desires often seem to be at war in Ripley's psyche. It sometimes feels as if there are two Ripleys: the sympathetic, human one who wants love and connection, and the monstrous one who covets possessions and social status.

The irony of the situation, of course, is that it's the first of these two desires that most characters in the novel recoil from. Even Ripley himself finds it abhorrent. His capacity for double-think, the ease with which he holds himself aloof from his own crimes, is, we eventually realize, an outgrowth of his lifelong self-denial. The desire for wealth and status , meanwhile, is one that our society often valorizes. By the end of the novel, Ripley, like so many thieves before him, is able to point to the life of beauty and culture that he has purchased with stolen wealth to suggest that he always deserved the riches he accumulated through bloody violence.

Killing Dickie, then, is a way of sublimating an unacceptable desire into an acceptable one. Ripley commits a second murder when Dickie's friend, Freddie Miles, finds him in Rome, living in what he has been told is Dickie's apartment, and assumes the two men are lovers. While disposing of Freddie's body, Ripley shakes his head over the dead man's "dirty mind". His ultimate triumph is achieved by fobbing the blame for Freddie's death onto Dickie and faking his suicide, displacing everything he dislikes about himself onto the dead man, painting him as a tragic, suicidal homosexual. One senses that the equanimity with which Marge and Dickie's father accept this theory of Dickie's death, and the news that Dickie has willed his wealth to Ripley, is rooted in their disgust at what they believe they have learned about him.

Ripley himself, meanwhile, has fully substituted his desire for human connection with a desire for things. This is not to say that The Talented Mr. Ripley is to be read as a tragedy of moral dissolution. On the contrary, one of Highsmith's most bracing choices in the novel is her adamant refusal to deliver anything with even the whiff of comeuppance to Ripley, either practical or spiritual. The last bit of soul that he discards over the course of the story is something that has been holding him back, and which he is much happier without. That happiness explodes outwards in the novel's final scene, in which Ripley, realizing that he has truly gotten away with all his crimes, cries out to the driver of his cab, with an ecstasy that is almost sexual, to take him to a hotel: "Il meglio, il meglio!" The best, the best!

Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley is an odd artifact. Outwardly glossy and respectable—perhaps all the more so when watched in 2024, when fully five of its main castmembers have gone on to become some of the biggest A-listers in Hollywood—its adaptation of the novel is nevertheless sly and almost needling. Highsmith's novel is characterized by emptiness. Its deserted spaces are what allows Tom Ripley to commit his crimes unimpeded—the empty horizon that makes it possible for him to bludgeon Dickie to death and dispose of his body, while floating on a small boat in San Remo bay; the deserted, late night Rome street where he can carry Freddie Miles's body to his car. That emptiness, however, also conveys exclusivity. The luxury of a private train compartment, a palatial apartment, or a deserted beach.

Minghella's version brings back all the people missing from these spaces. When Ripley first meets Dickie and Marge on a beach in the picturesque, "unspoiled" town of Mongibello, it is crawling with tourists. The streets of the town are busy with residents going about their business, from a crowded market to a religious procession. Even in supposedly exclusive settings, such as the arrivals hall of a transatlantic ocean liner, or an evening at the opera, Ripley finds himself pushing against crowds. Add to this the movie's preoccupation with jazz—an obsession of Dickie's, who drags Ripley to a Naples nightclub where they perform a sweaty, laughing rendition of "Tu vuò fà l'americano" with the house band—and the impression formed is a film that is deliberately pushing against the novel's tone of old world gentility, reminding us that the story's late 50s/early 60s setting is as modern as it is historical.

It is, however, a choice that impacts on how the film perceives Ripley's motivations, his desires. Dickie's wealth is no longer as bound up in class and its hallmarks as it was in the novel. And if you eliminate that class consciousness, it's hard not to downplay the role that class envy plays in Ripley's crimes, resulting in a story that veers towards the sentimental.

Matt Damon is not an obvious choice to play Tom Ripley (there was probably no moment after 1999 in which most people wouldn't have assumed that he and Jude Law would be playing each other's roles) but nevertheless he manages to discover a vulnerability and openness in the character that make the performance one of the most interesting of his career. What he can't find in him—what the film, arguably, doesn't want to discover in Ripley—is any real danger or threat. The voracious covetousness that, in the book, eventually overpowers Ripley's more sympathetic longings is largely absent here. If Highsmith's novel is about Ripley's warring desires for love and wealth, Minghella's screenplay downplays the latter—when this Ripley decorates a Rome apartment with antiquities, or rents a lavish Venetian palazzo, he feels like a kid playing with their parents' things—and makes the former chastely romantic.

This version of Ripley is at once innocent and tragic, someone who falls into fraud, is goaded into violence (the film's Dickie, as well as recoiling from Ripley's affections, also pressures Marge into sex, and is revealed to have had an affair with a Mongibello woman, who kills herself after becoming pregnant), and is then locked into an endless cycle of committing further fraud to conceal his crimes, and further violence to conceal his fraud. Rather than gleefully surrendering his desire for human connection, this Ripley is punished by the loss of it. The film furnishes him with two potential love interests, a socialite played by Cate Blanchett, and a musician played by Jack Davenport, only for him to realize that his crimes make it impossible for him to be with either. The film ends with Ripley quietly shattered at the realization that he has given up love for riches.

Steve Zaillian's recently released miniseries adaptation of the novel, titled simply Ripley, might almost be the 1999 movie's negative image. It is faithful almost to a fault, following dutifully along the novel's every beat of plot and character. (One notable exception: at no point are we asked to believe that it is possible to look at Andrew Scott and mistake him for Johnny Flynn.) It leans into the alienness of the novel's time period, lingering over minutiae, such as the detailed message forms filled out by hotel concierges, with boxes to indicate whether the call was urgent, or whether the person looking for you expects a return call. And at every point, it stresses the role of money in its story, and its importance to its title character.

The broader canvas of an eight-hour miniseries gives Zaillian the space to delve into the convoluted mechanics of Ripley's schemes, the way he leaps nimbly between Dickie's identity and his own as events—Marge searching for Dickie, the police investigating Freddie's murder, Dickie's father arriving in Italy accompanied by a private detective—unfold around him. Of particular note are the two sequences that follow Dickie and Freddie's murders, long, wordless affairs in which Ripley painstakingly disposes of the bodies and the evidence of their connection to him. One of Ripley's key strengths is its ability to remain gripping even as it conveys how tedious the process of cleaning up after those murders is, how much repetitive labor—filling a boat with rocks, manhandling a body down a flight of stairs—it involves.

It is, in fact, this duality that gives Ripley its force, that saves it from the reaction one sometimes has to extremely faithful adaptations of extremely good books, that they are as inessential as they are thrilling. Ripley is full of event, but it is also unafraid of uneventfulness, of long stretches of silence, inaction, and tedium. The emptiness that characterized the novel is back in force here, in the cavernous churches and shrines where Ripley travels to look at art, in the high-ceilinged hotel rooms where he and Dickie stay, in the stairs he trudges up and down on his way to Dickie's house or his Rome apartment. There's a stillness to all of these spaces that often makes it seem as if Ripley is the only living creature within them, banging against their solidity, slowly bending them to his will.

That sense of stillness and old world solidity is also reflected in the show's much-discussed black and white cinematography, which produces some absolutely gorgeous images while also evoking Hitchcockian glamour and suspense. But to my mind, it's the show’s soundscape that is its most striking, impactful stylistic choice. The emptiness of Ripley is often interrupted—and at the same time, reinforced—by background noises, sounds from other rooms which are made insistent and even overpowering. The clack of typewriter keys, the clatter of an elevator, wind whooshing and waves slapping, barely-overheard snatches of conversation from the street. Together they create a sense of isolation—all that hustle and bustle of life is happening just out of sight—and also dread—at any moment, Ripley's schemes might be interrupted by an inconvenient witness, or that one person who can look at him and say "that's not Dickie Greenleaf".

Unsurprisingly for a show that is so steeped in the physical, in so fully immersing us in the look and sound of things that we can almost imagine how it would feel to touch them, the miniseries's version of Ripley is also defined by his relationship to things. They are what evokes his deepest and truest emotions—his palpable joy when checking into a luxurious Rome hotel; his profound pleasure at purchasing and owning fine and beautiful objects; the serenity he derives every time he arranges Dickie's stolen lighter and cigarette case in his bedroom. In the novel, almost the first thing Ripley notices about Dickie is a ring with a green stone. It is the first thing he removes from his body after killing him. The show seems to live in that covetousness, in the profound pleasure Ripley takes in seeing and possessing things like the ring.

But this, as we’ve already discussed, is only half of what Tom Ripley is. Only half of what he desires. Just as Minghella omitted Ripley's material desires, Zaillian seems to have omitted his emotional ones. Scott's performance is almost reptilian: still and chilly, and then suddenly full of furious action and nervous excitement. But it lacks any dimension of longing or sexual desire. It's not so much that Ripley straightwashes its title character—on the contrary, it often acknowledges his queerness in unexpected ways, such as the casting of nonbinary actor Eliot Sumner as Freddie Miles, suggesting that Ripley's resentment of the other man is rooted in self-loathing. Queer desire, however, is not something the show is interested in. If this Ripley desires Dickie himself, rather than his things and his lifestyle, this is something the show buries deep in its subtext.

At 47, Scott is decades older than Ripley is in the novel, and even if we're not meant to acknowledge that age difference, it’s possible the show intends us to feel that the transformation the novel depicts, and which Minghella's film makes into the crux of its character arc, is one that has already happened. That this Ripley has already given up on a chance for human connection, already cut himself off from his sexuality, and is now free to focus only on material things.

It's interesting, however, that both of these adaptations, each worthwhile in their own way, felt the need to leave one part of Ripley or another on the cutting room floor. All the more so given that, just as Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley feels compelled to subject its Tom Ripley to an emotional comeuppance, Zaillian's Ripley ends on a hint that there may be a legal one for its title character, when the police detective who has been investigating Dickie Greenleaf realizes the man he met was actually Tom Ripley. It's as if only Highsmith had the courage to end on a note of triumph for her monstrous hero, and perhaps that’s because she was the only one who understood him fully, who saw both sides of him. One wonders whether it's possible for an on-screen depiction to fully convey Ripley's duality, and the transformation the character undergoes. Or whether, in order to experience that journey again, we will simply have to return to the novel.

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