Wednesday 12 November 2014

Highsmith's Final Stages

Back in the year 2000, when the remake of The Talented Mr Ripley (Anthony Minghella, UK, 2000) came out, I wrote a piece for Senses of Cinema (here) which began: In 1976 I met Patricia Highsmith at her house in Moret, a tiny village near Fontainebleau. The encounter did not last very long, perhaps three quarters of an hour, and did not lead to any enduring correspondence. Highsmith’s distraction at the presence of this Australian enthusiast was not allowed to last. I missed the local train back, walked all the way to Fontainebleau and allowed a couple of things to stick in the memory which I will refer to later. Let me start at the beginning.

Sometime early in the ’60s I saw the poster image of Alain Delon, stripped to the waist, impossibly handsome, at the wheel of a sailing boat, over the bold title Full Sun (not Purple Noon, as it was called in America). Then there was the film – a sleek glossy thriller, unlike any American film I knew, which to the innocent eye looked like a New Wave movie. It was a film whose characters have American names (like that of Charlie Kohler in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le Pianiste [Shoot the Pianist, 1960]). There was luscious location shooting, lots of slippery handheld camera work by Henri Decaë, loads of white and blue natural light. (Colour wasn’t a feature of the early New Wave pictures but I could not distinguish the films from each other then. After all, we were denied A Bout de Souffle [Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959] and any films by Rohmer or Rivette or Varda or Demy. For a while, those three little sex comedies with which Phillipe de Broca launched his career were, so were told, the essence of the French New Wave.) Full Sun (Plein Soleil, René Clément, 1959) featured an amoral hero of complete fascination. If ever a film turned an actor into a star it was this was one. Alain Delon as Tom Ripley seemed to epitomise so much beautiful grace, despite playing a character who was gauche and out of his depth socially. But his darting watchful eyes served a character who wanted to get inside other people’s skin. Delon was the epitome of the romantic bad boy at a time when amoral heroes in Chabrol’s films and Truffaut’s films were all the go – even without Belmondo’s Michel.

The source material only registered on a second viewing, a novel titled The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. I started reading Highsmith at a rapid rate. At that time she had published seven or eight novels which she once described, very simply somewhere, as books in which she studied the effects of guilt on her characters. Whether her characters had committed a crime or not, did not make much difference. One of the exquisite ironies of her narratives was that sometimes the most innocuous and innocent act would have the most devastating consequences. In others, elaborate facades, inevitably leading to murder, were erected by people whose psychology was so far off the rails as to render them impervious to any thought of apprehension. The Blunderer,  filmed in 1963 by Claude Autant-Lara (as Le Meurtrier, a film I’ve never seen), featured as its hero a man who buries a carpet in an attempt to simulate the feeling of burying his errant wife. This trivial stupidity leads to his doom. This Sweet Sickness, directed by Claude Miller in 1977, tells of a man who constructs an extraordinary separate existence for a woman who knows nothing of his infatuation.

Then there was the character of Tom Ripley, almost an antidote to the other Highsmith creations. Ripley is the street smart, smooth operator who feels no guilt at all, a man who can rationalise deceit, lies, criminal behaviour and even murder in a way not even the sharpest politician could equal. Highsmith’s opening lines of The Talented Mr Ripley quickly establish two things. Ripley is fearful of apprehension and he is already involved in a minor but elaborate piece of criminal confidence trickery.”

Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage heading his way. Tom walked faster.

And a page or so later:

This raised his total in cheques to one thousand eight hundred and sixty three dollars and fourteen cents he calculated in his head. A pity he couldn’t cash them.

The little scam involves requests for money, cashing cheques and impersonation – all designed to show that Ripley can easily carry off the much bigger game of impersonating Dickie Greenleaf and living off his money. After Tom returns to his flat, having just got the job of going to Europe to retrieve Dickie, we read:

slowly he took off his jacket and untied his tie, watching every move he made as if it were somebody else’s movements he was watching

Already Ripley’s self-awareness, his ability to step outside himself and become another character, is set by quintessential Highsmith prose – flat, containing no superfluous adjectives yet conjuring up the image perfectly. The attraction of the prose for filmmakers has never diminished. (Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Michel Deville, Hans Geissendorfer [twice] and Claude Chabrol have also filmed her novels, as has the BBC in a brilliant six part serial of the early ’70s adapted from A Dog’s Ransom.)

For years, Ripley existed in my mind in the image of Alain Delon, an image reinforced by the novels which followed: Ripley Underground and Ripley’s Game. I ignored the ending of René Clément’s film whereby the police net closed in right after the discovery of the body of the murdered Greenleaf (Phillipe in Full Sun, Dickie in the book and Anthony Minghella’s new screen adaptation [1999] which keeps the book’s title). Highsmith got Ripley off scot free, an ending apparently insufficient in drama for the filmmakers, both of whom go for a different take – Clément for the irony of the ’50s, Minghella for the ambiguity of the ’90s. For Highsmith there was just a momentary apprehensive sweat before he sails off to Greece, the beneficiary of Dickie’s will, a solitary psychopath of great fascination.

Which is a long way of telling the background to a recent evening at the Opera House’s Drama Theatre for a Sydney Theatre Company production of a new play by Joanna Murray-Smith titled Switzerland (directed by Sarah Goodes). The audience arrives to see an empty living room, spacious, tasteful. The look, because of the rather odd dimensions of the Drama Theatre, a great deal of width but little height and depth, reminds you instantly of a wide shot in good old 1:2.55 Cinemascope, the widest it ever got and hardly ever mastered by directors and photographers. The room is on a slight angle and the audience at the back of the theatre looks at it from slightly above, just as it might look at one of Kurosawa’s diagonals.

The character of Patricia Highsmith, a  brilliant physical impersonation by Sarah Peirse (and I reckon I might be one of a handful of Antipodeans who ever stood in something like similar surroundings to judge!), comes slowly down the stairs, neatly dressed in shirt and the chinos she loved to have Tom Ripley wearing. Not long after a young man barges in, deposits his luggage down and announces he is from her New York publisher and he aint leaving until he has her signature on a piece of paper signifying that she will write another Ripley novel, to go with the four already published. It was somewhat common publishing knowledge that in English at least, the Ripleys were Highsmith’s only sure fire money spinners. Whether an American publisher ever pursued her this hard is probably somewhat apocryphal especially given what she is reported to have said during a publicity tour in the US in 1992, the year she died.[1]

Never mind, the conceit fits perfectly and of course at every step Highsmith devotees recognise a reconfiguration of her own Ripley character, the young man who insinuates himself, lies and deceives and ultimately murders those who stand in his way. And so it goes. For one hour thirty five minutes the conversation rattles around Highsmith’s house, stripping out her character. It is a perfect capture of that wilful mixture of intelligence, prejudice and especially the hard-hearted business sense of the sole operator who has but a single skill to exploit and has developed a lot of rat cunning about how to do so.

Highsmith had an explosive ability to put a person down. She could be viciously vindictive and didn’t hold her tongue easily. So the young man finds. He’s determined too, notwithstanding being ordered out of the house on any number of occasions. He manages to stay overnight and after an hour the room darkens with its two characters exhausted. Not many seconds later it resumes.

Highsmith is refreshed, and refreshes herself further by suggesting a heart-starting beer to start the morning off. The boy/man has changed into a suit, light blue, very cool, more Ripley-like than his travelling garb seen previously. The battle for the signature resumes and its here we get the full on Highsmith, especially the ranter about race. In one of  her finest novels Edith’s Diary, Highsmith has the central character Edith write a letter to a local newspaper expressing the view that blacks are inherently or innately less intelligent than whites. Highsmith certainly believed that. She asked me if I thought it applied to the Australian Aborigine. (“Er no, I don’t think so” I gulped).

At the end of this sequence, there is another few seconds break before the final section of the play when Murray-Smith introduces her own wild fiction. It mixes Ripley, murder and sad demise and is a terrific and fitting ending. Telling more would spoil it and anyway I cant remember the details of just where this clever riff on Highsmith’s own fiction, her most intriguing literary creation, her sad final days as the combination of smoking, alcohol and cancer made things difficult to bear. As a theatrical spectacle though its exhilarating and like everyone there, greeted the actors at the end with what was quite an ovation.

[1] “Here in America they say get out, we’re not interested in the story, we don’t care about the quality, we’re looking at what the last books sold”  Quoted in Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, p440, Andrew Wilson, Bloomsbury, London, 2003

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