Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Picture Books: Patricia Highsmith

Stand back, kids, Scott Adlerberg took up my call to write a Picture Books entry (where we examine the films made from the work of one author) with gusto. Ballsy? Yep. Insightful? Uh-huh. Way outta my league? You bet. All of that and about fucking time, too. I've been keen to have thoughts by Scott since I met the man at N@B-NYC last year and heard him read from his novel Spiders & Flies (and damn, I can't wait to dive into his new one Jungle Horses). Afterward we grabbed a drink and a slice and talked movies and crime fiction for hours and I coulda kept going. That cat outclassed me on every level. When I approached him about participating in this series, he went high-stakes, with Patricia Highsmith - an automatic bases-loaded situation for crime fans there.  Did he connect? Did he whiff it? Do you really need to ask? Take it away, Scott.

Picture Books: Patricia Highsmith

Filmmakers love Patricia Highsmith. She published her first novel, Strangers on a Train, in 1950, and no less than a year later, Alfred Hitchcock adapted it. Since then, there have been countless movie (not to mention TV) adaptations of her work, and the filmmakers have come from all over: France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the U.S. This year or next, we're supposed to see three new films based on her books - The Two Faces of January, Carol, and The Blunderer. For an author who died in 1995 and did a lot of her writing in the fifties through the seventies, she remains remarkably in fashion. Maybe that's because of how she depicts neuroses, psychosis, stalking - dysfunction of all kinds. Highsmith writes blunt, chilly prose and specializes in the ironic. She can be downright macabre and punctuates her stories with black humor. All these things keep her work, on balance, from dating, but that's not to say she's a writer easy to adapt successfully. Though her books have absorbing plots and loads of suspense, the focus is on the psychology of the characters, not action. What's going on inside people is most important. Above all, in tale after tale, she has a slippery tone that keeps readers on edge; she lets her stories play out without concern for conventional notions of justice or morality. Sometimes the criminals get away at the end, sometimes they don't. With the exception of the Tom Ripley books (where you assume Tom will live so the series can continue), you have no idea when you start a Highsmith story how it will conclude. Graham Greene called her "the poet of apprehension," and that description fits. You read her with a continual sense of unease, a quality difficult to capture on film.  Some filmmakers have captured it better than others. For this piece, I watched or re-watched as many Highsmith adaptations as I could find, startled and at times annoyed by the wildly different approaches filmmakers have used to try to nail her down her tone. That is, if they were trying. Some, frankly, may not have been up to the task. But let's go through a bunch, film by film, and see how all these Highsmith adaptors stack up.

Strangers on a Train (1951)

When asked to name my two or three favorite Hitchcock movies, I always name this. So do most people I know who love Hitchcock. But how much of it comes from Hitch and how much from the Highsmith source material? What we do know for sure is that the screenplay Raymond Chandler wrote after Hitchcock hired him was entirely rewritten….after Hitchcock fired Chandler. During the weeks Chandler worked on the script, he got no feedback whatsoever from Hitch, and when he did finally get a chance to look over the final version of the script (rewritten in three weeks by newcomer Czenzi Ormonde and Hitchock’s wife), he lambasted it in a letter to the maestro. What’s noteworthy about all this is that nobody who worked on the script seemed to hold Highsmith’s novel in high regard. Hitchcock had bought the rights to the novel for $7,500 and he’d kept his name out of the option talks to try to keep the buying price low. Highsmith was a first time novelist whose story and characters nobody involved in the adaptation had any qualms about changing. In the book, both Bruno (Robert Walker in the film) and Guy (Farley Granger) follow through on the exchange murders idea. Bruno kills Guy’s wife and Guy kills Bruno’s father.  Bruno dies towards the end and Guy turns himself in to the police. Gutsy as Hitchcock was, even he was not going to stick to this story in 1951, and so right from the very first Highsmith adaptation, we see the movies struggling with Highsmith’s unconventionality and daring. Even in later films, and foreign films, we’re going to see moviemakers softening Highsmith. With Hitchcock, in all honesty, this seems less like artistic timidity than like him doing his usual thing; as he did throughout his career, Hitchcock alters the book at hand to make its characters and plot suit his particular obsessions.

In Strangers on a Train and many books afterwards, Highsmith explores folie a deux. The concept of shared psychosis is her bread and butter. Two different people, often strangers, usually both men, meet and become linked through a crime. They become psychologically and emotionally dependent on each other, and their mutual obsession may lead as far as the destruction of both. Hitchcock takes this set-up in Strangers and flips it into something else, his fascination with doubles and opposites. The movie Strangers on a Train, like so many other Hitchcock movies (Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Vertigo, Psycho, Frenzy, and on and on) has duality at its center. Bruno voices what Guy wants and commits the act that Guy, ostensibly balanced, won't do.  But when Bruno broaches his exchange murder idea, Guy never says outright not to do it. Not so much dependent on each other, they are like two sides of one person, and it's ironic that at the conclusion, after all the times Guy has called Bruno a "madman", Guy benefits from Bruno's actions and essentially gets what he wants. Bruno is no more, but neither is Guy's irksome wife who refused to divorce him. Considering that he was at least complicit in his wife's murder, Guy seems amazingly guilt free when we last see him sitting with his new beloved.

There is a homoerotic aspect in the novel that Hitchcock subtly kept, but the script changes Bruno's character. He's an unattractive alcoholic in the book, but in the movie he's a dandified, charming momma's boy, a classic Hitchcock sociopath. At the same time, he comes across as a little bit of a precursor to Tom Ripley. Moments after his cold-blooded murder of Guy's wife, he gently helps a blind man across the street - a mixture of brutality and civility that reminds one of Ripley. Robert Walker (who'd suffered from mental illness off screen) is suave and chilling as Bruno - when he says "I like you, Guy", you shudder - and Farley Granger is just about perfect playing a weak human being. He's more good guy than bad guy certainly, but he's hardly any sort of hero. In these areas, the character ambiguity, the moral haziness, we are without question in Highsmith territory.

Highsmith, who could be tough on the films made from her books, shifted in her view of Hitchcock's Strangers. When the film opened, she said she liked it overall. But years later she expressed regret over the essential plot alteration - Guy not killing Bruno's father. Still, this movie, more than her book, is the work that brought her name to the public.

Annabel (1962)

Hitchcock is also associated with another Highsmith adaptation I want to mention, though it's not a film. It’s a television episode from 1962. At that time, his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents expanded from a half hour program to an hour and became The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. During this season, the episode Annabel aired, adapted from the 1960 novel This Sweet Sickness. It's about a man, David Kelsey, whose infatuation with an ex-lover leads him into full-blown madness. The ex-lover (Annabelle in the book) has gone on to marry somebody else, but that won't stop the obsessed David from trying to get her back.

Paul Henreid (yes, the guy from Casablanca) directed the episode, and its writer was none other than Robert Bloch. A young Dean Stockwell plays David, Susan Oliver is Annabel, and Kathleen Nolan plays a woman hung up on David. With solid acting by all involved, the episode delivers forty eight minutes of fairly suspenseful television. Yet it also shows the pitfalls of trying to streamline Highsmith. Annabel contains stuff that's unmistakably the author - mental instability masked by charm; characters following, stalking, and spying on one another; people lavishing entirely unwanted attention on others and being brutally rejected - but you don't get to spend enough time with the characters and that means no real complexity develops. Highsmith's novels work by accretion of psychological detail, and without that, you have a TV story that suggests roiling depths but can't dive into them. Despite the thinness, there's an effective jolt at the climax, and the episode ends on a note of distinct creepiness. It must be said, however, that the jolt and the creepiness (done horror movie style) feel way more Bloch than Highsmith.

As a curio for Highsmith fans, Annabel is worth seeking out.  You can watch an excellent quality print on You Tube.

Ripley

Patricia Highsmith’s most famous creation, the American Tom Ripley, is one of crime fiction’s supreme enigmas. Through five books he robs, forges, lies, cons people, murders. He feels little to no guilt for any of his actions. And yet, he’s a character remarkably hard to pin down. It’s not even clear he’s a classic sociopath. He does sometimes feel empathy for others and there are people for whom he has affection. His preoccupation with certain men in the stories indicates that he might be gay, but he gets married and has a sexual life with his wife. Maybe he’s bisexual, or, considering his sometimes stated distaste for the sexual act, essentially asexual. He loves gardening, fine art, good food, and plays the harpsichord. He’s urbane and an excellent conversationalist. Not unlike Hannibal Lector, a clear descendant of Ripley, he appreciates proper manners in others and finds rudeness offensive. He comes from modest beginnings in Boston and later New York and winds up living a life of leisure on his estate Belle Ombre in the French countryside. There’s a lot to him, clearly, but there’s also a blankness to him, an indecipherability, that has allowed filmmakers leeway in how to portray him. Through four major film adaptations, four different actors with entirely different qualities and looks have played Ripley. With each portrayal, we’ve seen a Tom Ripley unlike the other three Ripleys. It’s hard to think of another fictional character shaded so differently from adaptation to adaptation. But let’s get to the first time the man popped up on celluloid…..


Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) (1960)

Throughout her career, Highsmith sold better in Europe than in the United States, so it’s not surprising the first Ripley movie came from France. Rene Clement’s Purple Noon adapts The Talented Mr. Ripley, the start of the Ripliad cycle, and has Alain Delon in the role of Ripley. Fellow French actor Maurice Ronet plays Dickie Greenleaf, who Ripley murders then impersonates, and what’s striking is how a film primarily in French, with Gallic actors playing Americans (And who is more Gallic in bearing and manner than Delon?) works so well. The pacing is sharp, and Clement’s camera captures the beauty of La Dolce Vita Italy where idle young Americans like Greenleaf and his fiancée Marge enjoy themselves. But it’s Delon who makes the movie. From the start, when he snatches a pair of important earrings while out gallivanting with Greenleaf, we see his calculation. The guy is gorgeous and smooth, but he convincingly shows why Ripley would resent and become obsessed by Greenleaf’s affluence and social status. Underneath his smiling and camaraderie, there is pure self-interest and the willingness to do whatever he needs to do to get what he wants. Clement and fellow scriptwriter Paul Gegauff don’t try to make Ripley sympathetic; they’re more interested, as is Delon, in making him fascinating. And fascinating he is. The murder scene on Dickie’s boat, preceded by a playful conversation where Ripley tells Dickie how he would murder him and get away with it, is brilliant – a burst of sunlit violence on a sparkling blue sea. Delon has the natural charm to play a man who could fool people, everyone from Greenleaf’s fiancée to the police, and true to Highsmith, you sense no remorse touching the man. The film is also terrific at showing the work Ripley puts in to achieve his aims. The scene where he buys equipment and sets himself up in a hotel room to master the specifics of forging Greenleaf’s signature is exciting and pure Highsmith. This is a film that does what the Ripley books do – makes you complicit with the character. Despite yourself, you root for him. How can you resist him? Such imagination and skill, such focused intelligence, should be rewarded. It’s only the film’s finale, the last minute or so, that goes someplace the book doesn’t go, not facing up to the Highsmith ending. Unfortunate, okay, but up until that point Purple Noon is faithful to the spirit of its source and puts that spirit across in a really entertaining way.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Jump ahead thirty nine years, and we get version 2.0 of this book. It’s Hollywood’s first attempt to tackle Highsmith since Hitchcock did. We get a first-rate cast, a deluxe production, location shooting, and a plot that follows the book closely. This should all add up to a splendid adaptation, but what in fact do we get on the screen? Half a damn good Ripley film and half that is cop-out and cowardice, mushy lovelorn bullshit.

But let’s start with the movie’s strong points:

Director/screenwriter Anthony Minghella allows ample time for the story to develop. As in the book, a lot of the story takes place in the lead-up to the Ripley murder of Dickie Greenleaf, and it is this first half of the movie that clicks. In this version, the story begins in Manhattan, and we see the meeting there between Ripley and Dickie’s father. Ripley cons the father and the father hires him to sail to Europe to bring Dickie, the wayward son, back to New York. Jude Law is spectacular as Dickie, his magnetism drawing in everyone around him, Ripley included. Similarly, Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge and Philip Seymour Hoffman as their pal Freddy Miles are perfect. All three inhabit their roles as spoiled hipsterish Americans abroad with utter conviction. The camerawork has more of a touristic quality to it than Clement’s film does, but it conveys why Dickie, his friends, and Ripley would fall in love with these surroundings and never want to return to the States. The unhurried pacing fits as we hang out with these characters and watch Ripley insinuate himself into their lives. He tries to make himself indispensable. Here, his attraction to Dickie has a definite homoerotic feel (largely absent in Purple Noon), and it’s intriguing to watch Ripley conduct himself with a mixture of bravado, sincerity and cunning in a milieu that’s new to him. This is, after all, young Ripley, not the Ripley who becomes more polished in later stories.

Then, at sea, the murder happens. Oh, that murder. In Minghella’s telling, we get Dickie fed up with Tom’s weird clinginess and telling him he wants him gone. Like a rejected suitor, Tom tears up, and though he hits Dickie with an oar in anger, the murder then unfolds as Tom acting in self-defense. In 1999, Minghella doesn’t have the guts to give us the cold-blooded murder Clement gave us in 1960. Or maybe Minghella wants to use the novel as a canvas to explore something other than what Highsmith explores with icy precision. But what is that something? The rest of the movie is as confused as Ripley seems to be. I don’t blame Matt Damon for this. He should have made a superb Ripley and does what he can with the material he’s given. His Ripley is manipulative and murderous (he kills Hoffman’s Freddy Miles coldly), but he also seems twisted with guilt over the pain he caused Marge. He’s reluctantly amoral, it appears. He has nightmares and wishes he understood himself better. If only someone could appreciate the lost little boy inside him, he might not be so criminally oriented.

Minghella dots every i and crosses every t on the way to a denouement. The last 20 minutes or so drag. But it’s in the denouement that the purpose of the film’s alterations become wretchedly clear. The ambiguous attraction towards men Tom has in the books is here made blatant; he has a relationship with a male character quite minor in the novel. To protect himself, Tom must kill this man, and the movie has the nerve to give us a Ripley sobbing as he murders his lover. It seems that Ripley has lost his last chance at genuine human connection (not kidding), and we last see him alone in a room, bereft. He’s scared of what lays in store for a lost soul like himself. This is a far cry from the Ripley of the book who escapes Italy for Greece, the Greenleaf affair complete. He has money. He may forever be looking over his shoulder for the police, but he’s ready to face the future. He sheds no tears, feels no guilt. That’s Ripley.

I can only wonder what Highsmith would have said about this adaptation.

The American Friend (1977)

This is the first of two movies taken from the third Ripley novel, Ripley’s Game. It is, for my money, the best Highsmith adaptation yet made. Directed by the German director Wim Wenders when he was in his prime, filmed by his regular cinematographer, Robbie Muller, this is certainly the most stylish and beautiful of the Highsmith films. It is also gripping, but what’s remarkable is how so much of the essence of Highsmith comes through even in areas where it seems Wenders has changed the story’s emphasis. To start with: the person playing Ripley – Dennis Hopper.

He is not, I think, the person who would occur to people if they had to name an actor for Ripley. While Hopper of course can do “crazy” as well as anyone, Ripley has a calm all-American façade that helps him win the trust of others. It’s Ripley’s façade and “normal” manner that gets Dickie Greenleaf’s class-conscious father to give him money to travel to Europe on his errand. Matt Damon sells this conception of Ripley, but would a guy like Greenleaf’s father ever give a Dennis Hopper Ripley money for such a task? Even Hopper restrained doesn’t convey trustworthy normality. On top of this, Wenders keeps showing Ripley in a cowboy hat. “Do you wear that hat in Hamburg?" Ripley is asked, and Ripley replies, “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?

A cowboy. The hat gives a clue to what Wenders is getting at. In his hands, the story becomes a variation on a pet theme of his – the relationship between the United States and Europe, specifically Germany. This Ripley has his estate in the German countryside, outside Hamburg, and inside it he has a neon Canada Dry sign and a jukebox – signs of his American crassness. It’s inconceivable to think of the novels’ Ripley having these items inside his house. He’d find them vulgar. When Jonathan Zimmerman, the guy drawn into Ripley’s murderous game, asks Tom what he does, Tom says, “I make money.” Could that answer be more American? And what a contrast Tom is to the old-world German Zimmerman, a man who has an actual craft making picture frames. Hopper’s Ripley is less polished than the guy in the book; it’s difficult to envision him playing the harpsichord and gardening. He has no wife and servant, none of the busy domestic life the Ripley of the books has, and he spends lots of time alone in his house talking into a tape recorder, asking himself questions aloud, or taking Polaroid selfies as if he’s trying to figure out who he is. He reeks of ennui and alienation and aloneness. Yet these qualities, in less blatant fashion, are all part of Ripley’s make-up in the books, and by highlighting them, Wenders creates an essential, convincing Tom. In Hopper, the unpredictability of the character is there as well as the sense of danger. This is a guy you know will do anything if circumstances demand it.  He has the biting humor Highsmith gives Ripley. And remorse never enters the picture.

The American Friend has an energy about it that’s exhilarating. It ripples with atmosphere as the camera rolls and tracks through Hamburg. The movie actually begins with plot elements from the second Ripley novel, Ripley Underground, about art forgery, before it gets into the story of how Ripley, because of a social slight, sucks the terminally ill Zimmerman into a web that has the previously gentle artisan killing gangsters.

As Zimmerman, the great Bruno Ganz plays off Hopper’s intensity perfectly. His underplaying and quiet humor compliment Hopper’s brashness. Cameos by Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller add to the fun. There’s a murder at a subway station that’s thrilling and a murder scene on a train that Hitchcock couldn’t have topped. Murder and Ripley’s bracing American influence turn the sick, enervated European into a vigorous figure. This is a movie jaggedly edited and a touch hallucinatory, and it all adds up to an experience you can’t forget. I’ve seen it three or four times and I find it compelling every time.

Ripley’s Game (2002)

Italian director Liliana Cavani (of The Night Porter fame) made the second version of this novel. Ripley this time? John Malkovich. Though not an ideal Ripley in terms of physical appearance, the bald-scalped Malkovich has all the prerequisites to embody the character. No one does suave coldness, intelligent ruthlessness, like Malkovich, and he takes to the role of Ripley with relish. From the film’s first scene, which shows him pulling off a deal that involves quick thinking, iron balls, verbal mastery, and targeted violence, we know he’s a man to be reckoned with. And from the cavalier attitude he displays towards his initial murder, we know that we’re getting the guilt-free Ripley we love from the books.

Ripley’s Game covers the same plot territory as The American Friend does. This time Ripley is living in Italy. The film’s got Ray Winstone (always a plus) as Ripley’s sometime partner Reeves, Dougray Scott as Trevanny (the character Bruno Ganz played) and Lena Headey as Trevanny’s wife. All are good. It has an evocative score, with a lot of harpsichord music, by Ennio Morricone. The Ripley here has a rich domestic life with his wife and cook, and he mingles with his country neighbors, attends parties they give. As in the book, it’s at his neighbor Trevanny’s party that Ripley hears Trevanny uttering the dismissive words that sets Ripley against him. The plot unwinds effectively, but something keeps the overall movie from matching The American Friend’s brilliance. It’s the difference between cinematic craftsmanship, as Cavani has, and cinematic magic, which Wenders provides. While Ripley’s Game moves with a consistent linear rhythm, Wenders’ film moves in fits and bursts, with eruptions of energy and violence alternating with ominous calm. Scene to scene you’re wired watching Friend in a way you’re not watching Ripley’s Game. And a major change from both Friend and the book: for the second murder he comes to commit, Trevanny is threatened by Reeves; he is told to do the killing or his family will die before he does. This takes the crucial element of choice out of the act, something of the utmost importance to Highsmith. Her duos who kill may feature one person who is dominant over the other, but the weaker person’s collaboration is what makes the situation disturbing.

Still, Ripley’s Game is an enjoyable film that you can watch just for the Malkovich performance. We see him lolling in bed with his wife, giving her caresses without seeming all that involved. He’s a man who sews in bed and bludgeons a guy with a fireplace poker. He’s cultured. He nails the bland domesticity of Ripley yet underneath there’s a viper; he can switch in seconds from killing someone to ordering flowers over the phone. And does anyone use his voice better? With just the slightest change in inflection, he can ridicule a person, express contempt, go from friendly to snide. He can threaten death and turn your blood cold using the flattest of vocal tones. The word is that Malkovich put a lot of effort into this film, contributing much to the script, but for some reason, after a successful Venice International Film Festival premiere, the movie never got a US theatrical release. It deserved better, and if you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s readily available for home viewing.

Day of Reckoning (1990)

From 1990 to 1992, a TV series called Chillers ran for twelve episodes, and each episode was based on a Patricia Highsmith short story. The series was a British-French co-production, and Tony Perkins served as host. Actors who starred in various episodes include Ian McShane, James Fox, Tuesday Weld, Nicole Williamson, Ian Holm, Marisa Berenson, and Ian Richardson. It’s not possible to go over each and every episode here, unfortunately, but one episode does bear mentioning. Day of Reckoning is adapted from the story of the same name from the collection The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murders, and what makes this episode of the twelve noteworthy is its director – Sam Fuller.

Fuller’s emotive, tabloid style would seem ill-suited to Highsmith’s frostiness. But maybe the reason he decided to accept this assignment is because of how weird the plot is. It has to do with a young man visiting his aunt and uncle’s chicken farm, an automated abomination of a place where new technologies torture the chickens but make them astonishingly productive egg layers. The uncle, played by Phillipe Leotard, is ecstatic about what the new methods make possible, but his wife, Assumpta Serna, has reservations. Manipulating artificial days and nights for the cooped up chickens, never letting them feel natural dirt, the uncle doesn’t seem to know or care that all the mistreatment has made the birds insane. In the building where they’re kept, they cluck incessantly, at a volume loud enough to make talking impossible. The uncle loves his newfound profits (traditional chicken rearing left him struggling financially), but the aunt and the visiting nephew feel uncomfortable with the business despite its success. Also in the mix is the married couple’s pre-teen daughter, a sweet girl who loves her kitten, and it’s a misfortune that happens to her that prompts the story’s final wicked and wickedly funny actions.

As I say, I think it was the strangeness that drew Fuller. The source material allows him to play, like in the baroque shots he does showing the farm reflected off a chicken’s eye.  There is a dream sequence in the episode that does not occur in the story, its wildness unadulterated Fuller, especially its musical section and the chicken talking to the nephew with the voice of the aunt.  But for the most part, Fuller and his co-writer Christa Lang are faithful to the short story, transposing to the screen the ideas in it. Human greed, exploitation of animals, science run amok, and the danger that Nature may turn on man – all these are in the story and episode both. Fuller brings a cockeyed energy to the project, but he also exercises discipline to foreground what Highsmith stresses.

Although it’s a mere 50 minute episode, and an eccentric episode at that, Day of Reckoning is an example of a work that melds two unlike sensibilities. It’s also a hell of a lot of nutty fun.


The Cry of the Owl (1987)

If there’s a filmmaker as preoccupied by deviousness as much as Patricia Highsmith is, it’s French director Claude Chabrol. In a fifty year career starting in 1958, the French New Wave master made 60 feature films, most of them thrillers, and as early as the late fifties, he wanted to do an adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley. He found that Rene Clement had already bought the rights to the book, and years later, in the eighties, he discovered that the rights had been bought to another Highsmith novel he wanted to film, Those Who Walk Away (never made into a film). By this time Chabrol knew Highsmith personally, and she suggested he film her 1962 novel The Cry of the Owl. He wrote a script with his frequent collaborator Odile Barski, and the result is a Highsmith adaptation praised for its fidelity to the book.

What happens when a man peeping through a woman’s windows at night, who has held a gun to his ex-wife’s head, who has undergone treatment for depression, turns out to be the sanest of a group of four central characters involving himself, his ex, the woman he spies on, and that woman’s dumped boyfriend? It’s a typically ironic Highsmith situation; the character who seems like he’ll be most unhinged turns out to be an almost passive catalyst activating the sickness in others. Once Robert (Christophe Malavoy) stops spying on Juliette (Mathilde May) and makes himself known to her, she reacts with a devotion that makes him wonder whether he wants to be with her. Meanwhile, the boyfriend she threw over for Robert is incensed, and Robert’s ex-wife is a wildcard who has remarried but continues to plague him.

Chabrol is an experienced hand at duplicity and the human capacity for self-deception, and he handles The Cry of the Owl’s sinuous plot without strain. His camera work is fluid, his images are pretty. Nothing in the story gets telegraphed, and for the most part, the slide from a surface of order into violence and destructiveness for all never challenges credulity. However extreme their actions, everyone here is definably human; no one gets demonized. The film entertains and has suspense. Where Chabrol hurts himself some is in his tone. The book has a serious one, the film less so. The image of Juliette looking into a fish tank at the film’s beginning is an apt one; Chabrol’s a director where you often get the feeling that he’s outside the action looking in, observing human specimens in their tank. What he sees in that tank is chaotic and rancorous, but he can’t help but be mildly amused and he express that amusement through drollness. At times this drollness becomes arch. These may sound like Hitchcockian traits, but with Chabrol in this film, the lightness is misplaced and dilutes the impact of the story. Juliette is the truly tortured soul here, but her pain doesn’t come across enough. Her ultimate decision about how to resolve the relationship with Robert doesn’t hit you as hard as it should. And Robert’s wife seems more like a capricious game player than someone venomous. The movie does end with a gripping final image, though, and overall it’s a movie where you know that you’ve been in Highsmith’s universe.

The Cry of the Owl (2009)

Directed and written by British filmmaker Jamie Thraves, this English language version of The Cry of the Owl surprised me. Because it’s uncelebrated, I wasn’t expecting much. But as a matter of fact, I’d recommend it over the Chabrol version. Again, the adaptation is faithful plotwise to the book, but it has none of Chabrol’s drollness. For this particular material, as Highsmith showed, a certain somberness is appropriate; this gives the story and the characters the weight they need. The film gives you a real sense that you’re spending time with damaged people whose lives depend on what they can control and what they can’t, on how much they can get other people to fit into the slots they’ve mentally erected for them. At bottom, this is a story about the fantasies people spin for themselves and what happens when those fantasies clash with reality. Among the characters, there are several destructive mutual dependencies going on at once. Do I sound too much like a shrink? Maybe an immersion into Highsmith encourages that. But in any event, this version of her book puts these things across, and maybe the reason this movie is relatively unheralded is because, like Highsmith, it makes few concessions to its audience. It has a cool veneer, presenting behavior, screwed-up people, without moral comment. The pacing is deliberate but builds tension. Paddy Considine makes for a Robert who is sad, maladjusted, firm, understanding, and distant all at once, and as his ex-wife, Caroline Dhavernas (now on Hannibal) has seductive toxicity in her bones. Julia Stiles as Jenny (the one Robert spies on) is affecting; her transformation from woman watched by Robert to woman who needs Robert happens plausibly, and we grasp her anguish. Her eyes tell us when her final interpretation of Robert snaps into place, and precisely what that means to her, and her last act here does get to you.

All in all, the 2009 version of The Cry of the Owl is an underrated film that Highsmith fans should watch.

Deep Water (Eaux Profondes) 1981

French stars Isabelle Huppert and Jean Louis Trintignant play the married couple in this adaptation of Deep Water, and it’s no shock that they fit the bill. Over long careers, each has played any number of characters neurotic and perverse, and both bring ferocious intelligence to their acting. Directed by Michael Deville, the film updates the 1957 book and transports the setting from the American suburbs to the serene island of Jersey, off the French coast. It’s a sensible geographical switch. Jersey, as shown here anyway, is a place where the residents value propriety and appearances as highly as the residents in any American burb.

What an odd marriage Vic and Melanie have! They have a lovely house, a sweet young daughter, money. They enjoy an active social life together. Vic does the cooking and often serves Melanie breakfast in bed, but they never have sex with each other and she takes lovers right under his nose. He displays no interest in going to bed with anyone else, male or female, though it’s not clear whether or not he’s impotent. Her philandering seems to be done with his consent, but if that’s the case, how come he keeps trying to undermine her affairs and scare off her lovers, suggesting to them that he killed a man who was a recent lover, a guy who’s disappeared? We find out he didn’t kill that man, but the jealousy he tries to keep under wraps with his wolfish smile and impeccable manners is something he cannot contain and imagined murder turns real. But can his wife prove that he killed those men? And if she leaves him, will their child be a pawn in the ensuing struggle for who gets what?

This is a movie that gets its feel for Highsmith right. There is playfulness – the harpsichord music on the soundtrack may be a nod to Ripley’s favorite instrument and Vic enjoys breeding snails (as Highsmith did) – but that playfulness doesn’t overwhelm the story’s darkness. It’s a darkness that comes out at house parties and pool gatherings, a darkness that takes over in the rare moments when Vic and Melanie admit to themselves they have a loveless marriage. And what exactly does she get from the arrangement? If every marriage is a mystery understood only by the two participants, then this one is a complete conundrum. But something keeps it going. In her books, Highsmith creates full-blooded characters with all sorts of edges, but she makes you work to understand them. She doesn’t over explain her people. There are layers and layers, and mutual co-dependence is a bizarre thing. Hate binds two people as powerfully as love does. Jealousy binds. An array of unwholesome emotions bind, and Deville’s adaptation of Deep Water gets into this area admirably. Vic and Melanie are a couple we know but can’t figure out, and in Huppert and Trintignant you have the actors who can carry off this level of complexity. They give you a lot to see and speculate about, but they always seem to be withholding something.

Giving but withholding: it’s how Patricia Highsmith, in her books and stories, operates herself.


Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He is the author of the genre-blending noir/fantasy novella Jungle Horses, available now from Broken River Books.

1 comment:

david hartzog said...

Very fine post on one of my favorite authors. I've seen most of these films, and will seek out the rest. I did see The Two Faces of January last week, and thought it excellent, fine cast, compelling.