Picture Books: Patricia Highsmith
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.
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.
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.
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…..
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.
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:
I can only wonder what Highsmith would have said about this adaptation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Giving but withholding: it’s how Patricia Highsmith, in her books and stories, operates herself.