Two tales of two Toms.
The Film(s): A double feature of Patricia Highsmith adaptations
The Potable: Four Tom Collins’, six Pabst Blue Ribbons
I first fell in love with the stories of Tom Ripley as an adolescent. While he may have been originally conceived as an exploration of duality in postwar America, the universal theme of Highsmith’s novels has always been identity and alienation. Very relatable to a rural 12-year-old who didn’t give a shit about sports or hunting. I recently sat down to watch two screen adaptations of the iconic character, and while some might find the difference between the two performances to be jarring, none of our identities are fixed. Actors bring different takes to roles just as we see new reflections of ourselves as we age.
René Clément’s 1960 Purple Noon, based on Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, stars the impossibly handsome Alain Delon. That hair, that magnetism. He’s invited to shoot a music video on a sailboat with wealthy playboy Philip Greenleaf and Philip’s beautiful fiancée. Why any man would introduce his bride-to-be to Alain Delon is beyond me; I make sure all of my male friends are just as ugly as I am.
Philip becomes angry with the direction the video is going and tosses his fiancée’s storyboards overboard. Distraught, she takes one last look as Delon’s sleek jawline and abandons the project. Alone in the piercing, Delon-eyes-blue waters of the Mediterranean, Philip and Tom share a cheese plate. “Good lord, you’re bewitching,” Philip says, as if he only just then realized. Tom says thank you and stabs him with the brie knife.
Delon plays Tom Ripley with a subdued menace, his manipulations masked by his charm. As Tom assumes Philip’s identity, Delon’s boyish WASPiness hints at our universal corruptibility, the illusion of a virtuous upper class, the fluidity of the self. He relishes “the good life,” and resembles a young Jack Kennedy or Remington Steele.
In middle school, I had no idea who Alain Delon was. I was, however, fully aware of Pierce Brosnan. On the Outer Banks one summer, I, too, adopted the look of a Massachusetts oarsman. “Your collar’s stickin’ up, boy,” my father said, en route to the area crab shack. “He likes it that way,” my mother whispered. “What?” “He likes it that way.” Annoyed, I stuck it out through the salad, but ultimately abandoned the look after dipping my gold bracelet in lobster butter.
Based on Ripley’s Game, the third novel in Highsmith’s series, Wim Winder’s 1977 The American Friend is a drastically different movie. It stars Dennis Hopper, whose Ripley is a little older, no less conniving, but bored and lonely. Gone is Delon’s cabana wear, replaced with the cowboy hipster threads of an isolated expat hoping to stand out while far from home. This Ripley has graduated from identity theft to dealing in art forgeries, and he forms an unlikely bond with a dying picture framer he cons into becoming an assassin.
I would never suggest that Dennis Hopper is unattractive. He’s a baby-faced dreamboat in Night Tide. A countercultural Adonis in Apocalypse Now. A Koopa cutie in Super Mario Bros. But – he’s no Alain Delon. In The American Friend, Hopper embodies something I learned long ago: that it’s easier to get on if you posit yourself as a weirdo. He eats chicken fried chicken on a pool table beneath a vintage sign for Canada Dry. He wears a bolo tie because – let’s face it – they’re easier to tie.
“Do you wear that hat in Hamburg?” Ripley is asked. “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” he responds, though one problem may be his setting fire to a Volkswagen like a Texas frat boy. Whatever, he does what he feels.
Unless you want to spend half your life standing at the ass end of a clothing iron, you’ll never manage the fastidious look of an East Coast prep. Maintaining the proper hair length? Keeping your loafers mud-free? Buying underwear every three years? It’s exhausting.
The American Friend’s lighting is moody and evocative, though I would not describe Purple Noon’s lighting as purple.
Who played it best? An impossible question. Both performances are fitting for their respective films. One might as well ask if wind is better than rain. If Wendy’s is better than Popeye’s. To pit two behemoths against each other is fruitless, especially when fixed identity is an illusion. Hopper is Ripley is Delon, just as we all live fifty different lives before we die.
My favorite Ripley? Patricia Highsmith.
Verdict(s): and the striking Alain Delon, who are we kidding, right?