Darkness at 'Noon' Review: "Purple Noon," a 1960 French murder story never seen in America, is chilling but riveting.

August 02, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Here's a nice hydrochloric aperitif for before dinner: Rene Clement's 1960 chiller "Purple Noon," rescued from oblivion by director/film scholar Martin Scorsese and re-released to American audiences by a new division of Miramax.

The movie, opening today at the Charles, is derived from the 1955 American novel "The Talented Mr. Ripley," by suspensemistress Patricia Highsmith, a Jessica Fletcher with a nasty sense of humor. Highsmith's creation, played here with icy aplomb by Alain Delon, was one Tom Ripley, a handsome, charming, clever psychopath who maneuvers his way into the lives of the indolent rich, takes their money and sometimes their lives, and goes his merry way. That's exactly what the film chronicles.

It has a few anthropological amusements worth noting. For one thing, it's entirely a French production, but Clement, the great director of "Forbidden Games," chose to stay close to the High-smith book by pretending that all the players were American. This is the rare continental equivalent of the dizzy American conceit that ancient Romans spoke with British accents: It's completely nutty, particularly as the body language of the players is so totally French, but somewhat endearing, given even the coldness of the material.

And the material is very cold. Delon's Ripley seems initially shallow, decadent, a frail parasite living off the wealthy, himself without power or wealth. The people he lives off find him amusing but insignificant; their wealth, they think, insulates them from the actual danger of the universe and they can't believe that menace could lurk behind his handsome, textureless face and obsequious ways. But he's got an ice pick for a soul.

He's been sent to the Italian coast by a wealthy San Francisco industrialist to bring back the man's errant, decadent son, Philippe (Maurice Ronet). But Ripley has wormed his way into Philippe's confidence, become a glorified pal-houseboy-sailing companion, and as the movie opens, Philippe is confident enough of his power over Tom to tell him that he won't be going back to San Francisco, thereby denying Ripley his payoff. So Ripley comes up with Plan 9 from the outer regions of the heart.

Plan 9 is: A) Murder Philippe. B) Become Philippe. C) Spend all of Philippe's money. D.) Sleep with Philippe's girlfriend. E.) Live happily ever after.

What is so frightening (and fascinating) about Ripley is the great distance between his shallow outer self, which suggests weakness and laziness, and his capacity to commit hideous violence in a second, then negotiate with stunning aplomb all the problems that the violence creates. With the pulse rate of a snake and the congenital liar's gift of complete self-belief, he's a master of the cat-and-mouse game.

jTC And that's what "Purple Noon" is: a lengthy cat-and-mouse game, as Ripley ever so coolly and without a shred of doubt or hesitation or conscience improvises his way around the unseen obstacles that appear between himself and his goal. It's part of the moral subversiveness of cinema: Ripley is a villain, but he's so clever, quick and dynamic that our sympathies, against our own moral compass, veer toward him undeniably.

It's a little slow starting and it does take a second or two to get over one's chuckles at the idea that these dandy Frenchies are pretending to be Americans, and the Eurotrash fashions of 1960 are very silly, but soon enough "Purple Noon" has you in its clammy grip. It's a deliciously evil movie, air-conditioned from within by the block of ice where Ripley's heart should be.

"Purple Noon"

Starring Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet

Directed by Rene Clement (1960)

Released by Miramax-Zoe

Rating Unrated (violent and sexual material)

Sun score *** 1/2

Pub Date: 8/02/96

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