The Talented Mr. Ripley
by Patricia Highsmith
With no language lab or foreign language movies in our small town high school, our French teacher must have been truly desperate to introduce a class of surly teenagers to some remnants of spoken French. So one day she loaded us onto a bus -- our town didn’t even have an English language movie theater at the time -- and drove us to a nearby town where she had persuaded a theater owner to give us a private showing of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Or so she thought.
What actually appeared on the screen, instead of the gentle Umbrellas, was a tale of murder from the criminal’s point of view starring heartbreakingly beautiful young Alain Delon, a movie with the bizarre English title Purple Noon. Although our embarrassed teacher asked whether we’d rather go back to class, what teens would? We settled into our seats to watch the French adaptation of Texas native Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley.
The movie had launched Delon’s career. Highsmith liked it. Or perhaps she liked Delon in it -- she dabbled in both men and women. But she quibbled over the ending, which implied that that Delon, as Highsmith character Thomas Phelps Ripley, was about to be arrested for his crime.
In fact, consummate con and sexually ambivalent murderer Ripley would go on to become one of Highsmith’s favorite characters, the protagonist of several more novels and movie adaptations.
Tom Ripley’s story opens with the request by wealthy businessman Richard Greenleaf to travel to Italy to bring his dilettante son Dickie back to New York. Although Dickie Greenleaf was little more than a casual acquaintance, out of work con artist Ripley can’t refuse, especially when Greenleaf offers to pay for Ripley’s ticket and expenses.
Ripley’s talents don’t include persuading Dickie to come home. But before the money runs out, Ripley insinuates himself into Dickie’s life too deeply to be eradicated. Raising the question of which of the two young men really is Dickie Greenleaf, and whether he has murdered Tom Ripley or Ripley has murdered him.
And of how many more people will have to die to preserve the multiple layers of secrets.
Not that I’m looking to murder anybody, but why don’t I ever get job offers like Ripley’s? Is it because I’ve been in Texas too long? Although born in Fort Worth, Highsmith moved with her mother and stepfather to New York the year she was six and never willingly returned.
Right back at you, Texas said. As biographer Joan Schenkar writes in The Talented Miss Highsmith, “when (Highsmith) offered her archives to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, she received a letter . . . suggesting the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars for her papers. ‘The price of a used car,’ Pat said bitterly, and refused to let Texas have her literary bones.”
The University of Texas may have been as squeamish about Highsmith’s talent as the respectable magazines she had applied to after graduating from Barnard College. Unable to get a job at what were considered respectable publications, she accepted an offer to write scripts for Cinema Comics.
In the early 1940‘s, “the entire comics milieu -- authors, illustrators, publishers and the improbable characters they were creating,” Schenkar writes, “was alive with the same collection of crooks and cons, artists with secret identities and heroes with Alter Egos, with which the talented Miss Highsmith would later populate so much of her fiction.
“. . . when (she) gave her ‘criminal-hero’ Tom Ripley a charmed and parentless life, a wealthy, socially poised Alter Ego (Dickie Greenleaf), and a guilt-free modus operandi. . . she was doing just what her fellow comic book artist were doing with their Superheroes: allowing her fictional character to finesse situations she herself could only approach in wish fulfillment.”
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics turns from mystery to historical fiction with a book that bridges both genres, Elliot Peters’ A Morbid Taste for Bones.)