The very strange title “Purple Noon” might suggest a film much more abstract, perhaps something Godard or Renais would make. Yet René Clément’s 1960 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 original adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” as the titular character, played in a star-making performance by Alain Delon, begins a messy attempt to change his life by investing a little too much in the life of gallivanting playboy Philippe Greenleaf before things turn to deception, sex, and murder. “Purple Noon” is the smarter, exsistential counterpoint to Anthony Minghella’s adaptation with Matt Damon, forgoing the melodramatic angle for something more profound, while combining elements later seen in films by the Coens, Polanski, Scorsese, and Coppola. In honor of Criterion’s new Blu-Ray, here are five things we learned about the making of this classic:
Clément Was In Battle with the French New Wave Throughout his Career
Despite his status as one of the great directors of France, the French New Wave callously attacked Clément while they were writing for Cahiers du Cinema and beyond. As Clément scholar Denitza Bantcheva describes in an interview on the disc, François Truffaut singled him out in his famous essay “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” which would lead to the formation of auteur theory. But not everyone was on board, recognizing the fantastic work he did in films like “Purple Noon,” as well as his best remembered film, “Forbidden Games.” In response to Truffaut’s essay, Cahiers’ editor and Cannes Film Festival jury member Andre Bazin retaliated by strongly lobbying for his next film, “Monsieur Ripois” (“Knave of Hearts“) to win the Palm D’Or (they instead awarded it a Special Jury Prize).
Delon Never Considered Being An Actor Until Clement Taught Him
In an interview, Delon describes how he never planned on becoming an actor until David O. Selznick tried to discover him at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, which Delon had only attended because of his friendship with Brigette Auber. Delon never learned English as Selnick wanted, and instead began working in a few French films. But it wasn’t serious until he worked with Clément who he refers to as his “professor.” The French master taught him all about acting, and helped coin the reserved cool that led him to become a European superstar. While he also discusses Luchino Visconti and a few of the other directors he had worked with, Delon seems to have a particular affinity for Clément as the one who best understood his capacity as an actor—the duo would collaborate three more times.
Much of the film ended up being improvised
In a booklet interview, Clément explains the difficulty of piecing the film together in the script; so many of the scenes—including the first, surprising murder—ended up being improvised. Clément says he could sense that the actors “knew” the scene already and could feel it, so there was no point in writing it down and decided to have them work through their emotions. He explains, “A script is like a score that is missing any indication of tempo. You have to breathe life into it.” They would also emphasize many of the beats in Highsmith’s novel that were barely mentioned. The sequence in which Ripley practices his handwriting over and over is a casual sentence in the novel that was only there to move the plot along, but Clément liked showing the process of this man.
Highsmith Refused to Adapt Her Own Work
Despite so many of her novels becoming films—not only the multiple adaptations of Ripley, but also Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend” and her personal favorite, Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train“—Highsmith claimed she has no talent for screenwriting whatsoever, and would leave it to the filmmakers. In the 1971 interview included on the disc, it appears much of this seemed to arise out of her demand for solitude in both writing and her general life (one comical moment comes when the interviewer asks her why she isn’t married and she responds “Wives are servants in America”). She describes a deep affinity for someone with a shadowy side like Ripley, and seems actually at peace with Clément’s variation on her ending.
The Talented Mr. Ripley Was Never Supposed to Be Gay
Perhaps the one thing everyone remembers from the Matt Damon and Jude Law version of the story was the blatant gay subtext. While that’s certainly also true in Highsmith’s novel, she never saw the character as necessarily gay as much as desiring of a new and different lifestyle. To his credit, Clément slyly removed any possible subtextual element from his film, and emphasized the romance between Delon and Philippe’s girlfriend played by Marie Laforêt. To say it was a smart move is an understatement, as “Purple Noon” makes Ripley similar to a character from a Robert Bresson film. And played with Delon’s coolness, Ripley is a man who is at times boyish and naïve, but slowly transforms himself into the ultimate form of cool as he soaks in the gorgeous locales and the new lifestyle he can adapt to. No one can touch the man who wants only “the best.”