This piece is in collaboration with The Playlist, where I wrote a listicle on the background of the making of Purple Noon, based on the extras provided by the stunning Criterion Blu-Ray. Below, I reviewed the film and the disc. Read that piece by clicking through here.
The very abstract title Purple Noon might suggest a film much more abstract, perhaps something Godard or Renais would make. Yet René Clément’s film, now out on a gorgeous Criterion Blu-Ray, is anything but that. Sexy, thrilling, and sensuous, Purple Noon is an audaciously smart French film worth any cinephile’s time. It’s the type of crime film that makes you think “they don’t make ‘em like they used to!” and has a central, star-making performance by Alain Delon that makes this a must-buy on any holiday list.
Perhaps if Clément’s film went by the title of its source material, people would be rushing out to buy it: Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Most people remember the classic crime novel from its over-melodramatic adaptation by Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon and Jude Law. Minghella’s film is certainly a fun and lucious, but it has nothing on Clément's existential and reserved approach. Foregoing the homoerotic subtext (though still hinted through the most intimate of close-ups), Purple Noon instead focuses on identity and class.
Forgoing any long exposition, Clément opens right in Italy with a night of heavy drinking between Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) and Tom Ripley (Delon). The two indulge in all sorts of pleasures thanks to Greenleaf’s very large wallet—he buys a white cane off of a blind man for an exorbitant price. Soon enough, we learn what has brought these two gallivanters together: Tom has been asked by Philippe’s father to bring the playboy back to San Francisco. But Philippe has no plan of doing so—he would rather travel around Italy with his girlfriend, played by the luscious Marie Laforê.
But Tom has his own agenda it seems. A master forger (with practice), Tom’s eyes suggest a longing for something greater than his current life. The $5,000 reward for returning Philippe sounds grand, but Delon’s performance reveals that this is a man with even more on his mind. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Tom sits in front of a mirror while trying on one of Philippe’s hats and repeating his words. Tom is not so much a talented Mr. Ripley than one of jealous desire. We’re given very little back story, and yet moments, such as when Tom stares out at a group of school children playing on the street, suggest a troubled upbringing of which he will have no part of. As he says in the final scene, Tom wants only “the best.”
But getting the best is difficult, and keeping it is even more. Without giving away the many twists and turns of the film, which will include seduction, theft, and murder, Purple Noon gives us an intimate character study that surprises scene after scene. The Italian land and sea make this a bright-colored texture, with Clément’s camera emphasizing the sensuous details of the environment. It pours deep into the eyes of Delon and Laforê in intense close-ups, yet never offers an easy interpretation. Each scene seems to offer new surprises—at times, this film recalls Bresson’s Pickpocket, Polanski’s Knife in the Water, and the Coens’ Blood Simple. And yet, it’s all of a cohesive whole, taking us through the process of a man so driven to covet he’ll do anything.
Purple Noon made Delon a star, and it’s easy to see why. Not only did the reveal of his perfectly chiseled chest caused a formidable eyebrow raise in this viewer, but Delon’s charm works wonders in this film. More emotional than the cooled performances in the Jean-Pierre Melville films that would later define his persona, Delon toes the line between his ingénue-like incompetence and his self-assured confidence. Instead of giving us a fully formed character, Delon slowly builds his character as he takes in the world around him, looking to the future instead of the past.
For a film full of gorgeous locales and even more gorgeous actors, Criterion’s transfer is impeccable. The colors spark with bold emphasis, especially noted in the film’s extended sequence at sea, and the Blu-Ray even manages to capture much of the grain as well. The extras are on the slimmer—a series of extended interviews with Clément scholar Denitza Bantcheva, Delon, and Highsmith, but each contextualizes the work and its release. The 40 page booklet includes an interview with Clément and a new essay by Geoffrey O’Brien that fantastically captures how Purple Noon brings together the true heart of the novel.
Released in 1960, Purple Noon was bound to be lost during the breakthroughs of Godard, Truffaut, and the rest of the French New Wave. And yet, Clément’s film is hardly old school. It plays more like a precedent to the 1970s existential thrillers that would make up the Hollywood New Wave. Crime is less of a feature than a function—and in Purple Noon, it’s worth risking it all to have the world you always wanted.