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The 5 Best and 5 Worst Patricia Highsmith Film Adaptations

The 5 Best and 5 Worst Patricia Highsmith Film Adaptations

As per Graham Greene’s introduction to her “Selected Short Stories,” American novelist Patricia Highsmith created a world of distrust and disillusionment, an illogical and often fantastical realm that taps into our cultural and personal anxieties better than “realistic” literature. With punchy prose that hits like so many fists and observations as sharp as kitchen knives, Highsmith crafted a misanthropic style of murder-mystery that has yet to be surpassed.

READ MORE: Watch: Viggo Mortensen Loves Patricia Highsmith in ‘Two Faces of January’ 

Because Highsmith wove such intricate psychological tales with terse and declarative language, her work lends itself to cinematic interpretation. Her novels and short stories have been adapted for film and television many times since Hitchcock first turned “Strangers on a Train” into a mammoth hit in 1951. (She was particularly popular with post-New Wave French filmmakers and TV anthology writers, though her shorter works are far less effective than her novels.) The latest film to try its hand at Highsmith, “The Two Faces of January,” recently opened to mostly middling reviews. It may not be the best Highsmith adaptation, but it’s certainly not the worst. Here are the five best and worst adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s work.
NOTE: Wim Wenders’ well-regarded “The American Friend” (1977) is pretty difficult to find in watchable quality, unless you can dish out mad money for an out-of-print DVD (almost 50 bucks on Amazon). It stars an oddly-cast Dennis Hopper, but it’s slick, stylish, and unlike any subsequent adaptations in its complete jettisoning of Highsmith’s stylistic affinities. Seek it out if you’re interested, but just know that it’s tough to tolerate in its available quality.

Best

“Eaux Profondes” (1981)
Directed by Michel Deville
This little-seen French flick, which stars a young Isabelle Huppert, is one of the slowest, most brooding Highsmith adaptations. Huppert plays Melanie, a flirtatious young wife (like most of Highsmith’s wives) whose husband, the seemingly calm and tolerant Victor (Jean-Louis Trintignant) isn’t quite as nice as he’d have you believe (as is the case with most of Highsmith’s husbands). Moody and twisty, with a memorable baroque score, “Eaux Profondes” gets at the more subtle, subversive terror that lurks in Highsmith’s work. It’s all around well-acted (not that Huppert is ever anything but great), and is arguably the most psychological of the Highsmith adaptations. Without much style, Deville, who never rose to the prominent ranks of his contemporaries Godard and Truffaut, sustains an air of mystery befitting Patricia Highsmith.   

“Cry of the Owl” (1987)
Directed by Claude Chabrol
A husband and wife move to Vichy, where said husband possibly develops a relationship with the beautiful Juliette. Juliette’s fiance gets jealous, someone is murdered, humanity is awful. Classic Highsmith. As is assumedly the case with most cinephiles who weren’t living in France in 1987, I’ve only seen Chabrol’s version of “Cry of the Owl” in an awful, full-screen transfer. You’re honestly better off avoiding it until a good transfer comes along, though that may be never (Criterion, you reading this?). That being said, what can be discerned through the gauzy low-res picture is classic Chabrol: slow, deliberate, gorgeously scored. It’s a film of noir trappings and minor chords. There are shades of Fritz Lang here, as well as Chabrol’s late-’60s efforts.
“Strangers on a Train” (1951)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
One of the master’s most popular movies, “Strangers” marks the first adaptation of a Highsmith work, and it set the bar pretty high. As you probably know, the story concerns a contrived murder plot conjured between a tennis player named Guy (Farley Granger) and an endearing psychopath named Bruno (Robert Walker, absolutely brilliant): they conspire to have guy kill Bruno’s father and Bruno kill Guy’s vulgar wife, since they’re complete strangers and can’t be implicated in the murders. Whereas most of Highsmith’s narratives prominently feature morally reprehensible characters as the protagonist, “Strangers” actually gives us someone decent to root for. The film admittedly lacks the profundity and malaise of Highsmith’s great novel, but it’s still thrilling. In adapting the work, Hitchcock laced the proceedings with his singular sinister grace; what would now be called “trash” is elevated to the level of pure cinema in Hitch’s hands. 

“Purple Noon” (1960)
Directed by Rene Clement 
The first adaptation of Highsmith’s seminal “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is considerably different from the book. It mostly takes place on a sailboat–think of a more colorful, less somber “Knife in the Water”–and it restricts its focus to Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) and his two companions, Phillippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) and Phillippe’s fiancé, Marge (Marie Laforet). Clement directs with arthouse ease, the sinuous blue waves ebbing and flowing like Tom’s emotions. (Get this on Criterion Blu-ray; the older DVD print is decrepit-looking.) Delon was the quintessential Tom Ripley for over thirty years, with only Matt Damon usurping him in 1999. One of his two greatest roles, the other being his stoic killer in “Le Samourai,” Delon’s Ripley exudes a sinful kind of charm, yet he remains vulnerable. He’s left drifting on a dingy in the middle of the ocean at one point, his smooth, taut skin charred and poisoned from the sun. A simple joke from a would-be friend almost costs Ripley his life; in return, he steals the friend’s life, literally. Delon uses his good looks and effortless charm with more peccant glee than his successors. He’s more calculating, more in control. The obligatory punishment dolled out to Tom at the end, as required by the censors of the world, is the only serious flaw in this otherwise stirring flick. Just turn the film off with two minutes remaining and bask in its beauty.
“The Talented Mr Ripley” (1999)
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Matt Damon makes the role of Tom Ripley his own with this disquieting, complex performance. Tom, a clever forger and pianist with serious social issues, is recruited by a rich ship tycoon to travel to a seaside Italian villa and bring back the tycoon’s spoiled son, Dickey (Jude Law, enthralling, gorgeous). Once there, Ripley falls in love with Dickey, or maybe with Dickey’s life. At once meager and menacing, a sexually confused boy plagued with anxious mansuetude searching for his identity, Damon’s Ripley is the most empathetic depiction of Highsmith’s beloved sociopath. He’s not a monster, and he’s never as sure or confident as Delon’s Ripley. He’s also more awkward and less acerbic than Highsmith’s Ripley, but it works. Eschewing the remorselessness of the novel, Minghella treats Ripley as a sorrowful, lonely person, a loser susceptible to fleeting strains of love. Instead of scheming to kill his friend out of hatred or vengeance, he splits Dickey’s skull in a fiery fit of passion because he feels rejected. As with Ripley himself, the film can roughly be split into two uneven halves; the first hour is utterly beautiful, while the second wavers a bit. (Philip Seymour Hoffman pops up, and he is, of course, captivating.) But there’s more than enough here to compensate for Minghella’s occasional flat note. It’s also the first Highsmith adaptation that really gets at the writer’s nebulous sexual politics, though it should be mentioned that Minghella purges much of Highsmith’s knavery and disdain for women (Highsmith herself being gay and yet fervently misogynist). Gabriel Yared’s sultry jazz score sustains a tone at once melancholic yet loving, hopeful. The photography and direction are gorgeous and eloquent, with the dual-personality imagery and motifs lucid enough to register but never obnoxiously blunt. That shot of Damon standing behind a mirror while Jude Law’s body is reflected in the gleaming glass is the summation of everything Highsmith every wrote.

Worst

“Ripley’s Game” (2002) 
Directed by Liliana Cavani
Previously adapted as “The American Friend,” Highsmith’s third entry in her Ripley series is perhaps the least memorable (hence Wenders changing so much for his film). Ripley (John Malkovich, excellent as a Hannibal Lecter-type psycho but completely wrong for the role) is asked to kill someone for money, but turns down the opportunity as he only kills when absolutely necessary. He then proceeds to threaten to murder literally everybody on a train, because consistency is for losers. Unmemorable and mediocre in pretty much every way, “Ripley’s Game” inexplicably earned a rave review from Roger Ebert, who proclaimed it to be the best Highsmith adaptation. That Cavani, known for her transgressive arthouse film “The Night Porter,” fails to instill any style or sexual danger to material rife with possibilities is as surprising as it is disappointing.
“Alfred Hitchcock Hour” (1962)
Episode “Annabel” 
On paper, “Psycho” author Robert Bloch seems like the ideal writer to adapt a Highsmith novel about identity issues. But, in turning “The Sweet Sickness” into a 45-minute network TV episode, Bloch was forced to cut a lot of the slow brooding atmosphere while adding a complacent ending unbecoming of Highsmith’s ironic sense of macabre. It feels more like one of Highsmith’s short stories in its immediacy and haste. Dean Stockwell is great fun playing the usual Highsmith man, a murderous gent with a jealous streak, but all of the other characters have had their serrated edges softened considerably. Let’s be real, here; adapting a psycho-sexual novel into an hour-long episode for network TV in 1956 obviously wasn’t going to work out very well.

“Ripley Under Ground” (2005) 
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Spottiswoode, who gave us the impeccable James Bond classic “Tomorrow Never Dies” (that’s sarcasm; that movie sucks) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The 6th Day,” seems an odd choice to direct an adaptation of a slow, brooding novel. And the awkward directorial casting is felt in virtually every scene of this unsure thriller. It lacks the complexity and aesthetic beauty of the better adaptations. As cumbersome as the director’s last name, “Ripley Under Ground” stars the usually-reliable Barry Pepper, woefully miscast as Highsmith’s artful forger. An impressive cast (Willem Dafoe, Tom Wilkinson, Alan Cumming) is sadly wasted.

Cry of the Owl” (2009)
Directed by Jamie Thraves
Thraves, a music video vet, tries to project a sense of foreboding onto his bland characters by withholding information and shrouding everything in darkness. Visually bland (but not really bleak), morally lazy (but not ambiguous), slow (but not a slow-burner), this is a pale imitation of the novel, or even Claude Chabrol’s earlier adaptation, “Le Cri du Hibou.”
“Once You Kiss a Stranger” (1969)
Directed by Robert Sparr
Television director Robert Sparr tried to make the leap to the big time with this lifeless interpretation of “Strangers on a Train.” (He died soon thereafter in a plane crash.) A woman (Carol Lynley) offers to kill a golfer’s partner if he, in turn, will kill her psychiatrist, who wants to have her committed to an institution (apparently with just cause).  As visually deft as a radio broadcast, “Once You Kiss a Stranger” is utterly forgettable. It’s not bad enough to be fun, but it’s too campy to be serious. It came out at the advent of New Hollywood but looks like a made-for-TV movie. The opening title song sets the milquetoast mood nicely. Paul Burke allegedly acts, though I didn’t really notice.

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