By J.D. Lafrance and Lady Fitzsimmons
Fresh from the commercial and critical success of phenom The English Patient (1996), filmmaker Anthony Minghella dove back into the literary world for his next film – The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), based on the 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. Adapted previously as Purple Noon (1960) starring Alain Delon, Minghella cast Matt Damon, still hot property from Good Will Hunting (1997) in the title role, and surrounded him with a new class of actors in ascension: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The end result was a lavish adaptation full of rich period detail and a fascinatingly complex performance by Damon as a social-climbing sociopath.
“If I could just go back. If I could rub everything out. Starting with myself. Starting with borrowing a jacket.”
Thus begins our story with voiceover narration by protagonist Tom Ripley (Damon). We meet him at a party hosted by the Greenleaf family in 1950s New York City, where Tom makes quite the impression on wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn). After the soiree, Tom shed ‘his’ Princeton blazer, revealing his for con of the film – posting as a Tiger for someone else. It pays off; the next day Herbert asks him to go to Italy and persuade his son Dickie (Law) to come back home for $1,000, which, by 1955 standards, is a tidy sum. Herbert is not happy with his son’s behavior overseas – “That’s my son’s talent,” he tells Tom, “spending his allowance.”
Tom, whose current employ is playing a piano at a cocktail bar, jumps at the chance to make some serious money – and rub elbows with the upper crust in Europe. Ever the astute social chameleon, we see Tom studying up on popular jazz songs and artists because it is a passion of Dickie’s and, more importantly, a way to immediately ingratiate himself. With one foot barely off the boat, Tom is already changing identities, telling fellow traveler Meredith Logue (Blanchett) that he is Dickie Greenleaf.
Tom orchestrates a chance encounter between himself, Dickie, and his girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Paltrow) on the beach in an amusing scene: Tom is all kinds of awkward as he sports lime green bathing trunks, which “compliment” his pasty white skin. I love how Dickie points this out (“Have you ever seen someone so white? Grey actually.”) and how quickly Tom makes fun of himself (“It’s just an undercoat.”). Tom is intensely serious in his plan to take on the character of a student on holiday, the way a rich playboy takes on a lover.
The seduction begins.
Tom impresses Dickie with an uncanny impression of his father and a mutual love of jazz. They become fast friends and are soon singing jazz in broken Italian at a hipster nightclub that Minghella captures in all of its dark, sweaty glory, masterfully capturing the energy of the moment. Tom agrees to help Dickie perpetuate a ruse – they will string his father along so that Dickie can continue to spend his money.
Tom is a student of human behavior, observing people for only a short while before being able to do an impression of them. For example, he studies the way Dickie signs his name and files it away for later use. Minghella shows Tom rehearsing in front of a mirror like an actor (where he creepily imitates a conversation between Marge and Dickie with eerie exactness). Like many great thespians, Tom is a blank slate, which allows him to become fully immersed in the “roles” he plays. During lunch he reveals his talents to Dickie and Marge – “Forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody” – and his “purpose” for being there. Every single movement – we realize now – has, from the beginning, been surgically planned and impeccably executed, a black widow weaving the web or perhaps, more appropriately, the funnel spider, launching the fatal attack from a place unexpected, at a time unthinkable.
The web is completed a mere 24 minutes and 30 seconds into the film as we watch the spider plot his “attack.” This section, this leg of Tom’s trip, is the film’s transition to a psycho-drama; Tom is becoming Dickie, and Dickie is coming closer to the edge of the cliff. It’s also worth mentioning the subtle homoerotic nuances of Damon’s facial movements, the lingering looks fostered by the sensuality.
Matt Damon does a fantastic job of presenting Tom as a socially awkward nerd, disarming Dickie and Marge who “realize” that he’s not threat to them. This allows them to act both good-naturedly and condescending towards him – they don’t see him as an equal. Dickie and Marge are all about social niceties; these will end up being used against them. Damon is all tentative gestures and aw shucks self-deprecation…but in private, he offers glimmers of Tom’s true self – something that is gradually revealed over the course of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Taking this role was a shrewd move on Damon’s part. He capitalized on the buzz from Good Will Hunting by then taking a chance on a different and difficult role instead of taking the easy route, and doing a romantic comedy or something safely within his wheelhouse.
The mesmirizingly handsome Jude Law is well-cast as spoiled playboy Dickie, a young man that spends most of his time traveling all over Italy, spending his father’s money. Dickie is the kind of person who’s into whatever is fashionable at the moment, like Charlie Parker-era jazz, and befriends people like Tom until he loses interest in/becomes bored with them. He’s a flake that thinks loving such things makes him a deep person and Law conveys this extraordinarily well. Dickie’s short attention span and spoiled-brat attitude of instant gratification anticipates the prevailing attitude of what society has become today. Marge sums him up best when she confides in Tom:
“The thing with Dickie … It is like the sun shines on you and it’s glorious … and then he forgets you and it’s very very cold,” to which he replies, “…so I’m learning…” She says, “When you have his attention you feel like the only person in the world. That’s why everybody loves him.”
Gwyneth Paltrow plays the perfect WASP socialite, tired of the “whole Park Avenue crowd,” and fled to Paris to work on her novel. She has problems of the idle rich and initially appears to be Dickie’s superficial equal. It’s Marge, however, that is the first person to suspect Tom’s real agenda but because she’s a woman – and it’s the ‘50s – she’s dismissed as being distraught. Fresh from the phenomenal success of Shakespeare in Love (1998), Paltrow was at the height of her mainstream popularity; getting her was a real casting coup for Minghella. She definitely looks the part and conveys an air of entitlement. Ultimately, Marge is a sympathetic, even tragic character as evidenced in a nice scene between her and Tom. She explains Dickie’s shifting attention from him to Freddie, hinting that she is aware of her boyfriend’s affairs with other women. Marge seems resigned to her lot in life with an air of sadness that humanizes her.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles and makes a dramatic entrance, befitting his larger than life persona, arriving in a sporty convertible that sends scores of pigeons scattering. He hops out and says with a mischievous grin, “I wish I could fuck every woman just once.” Hoffman makes an immediate impression – a high society accent and phony laugh intact – as he grabbily steals Dickie away from Tom. Freddie is a bully that delights in putting Tom in his place by reminding him of his lower-class status. It’s easy to see why Freddie and Dickie are friends – they are nasty people that treat others badly with little or no remorse for their actions. We don’t feel all that bad about their ultimate destinations.
Tom loves Dickie so much that he wants to be him. Throughout the first half of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella offers several moments that show Tom’s fixation on Dickie. He studies Dickie’s mannerisms because Tom wants to be him: eventually, he adopts the young man’s identity. The second half of the film is a fascinating study of how Tom attempts to maintain two identities without anyone catching on to his deception. At times, it’s a tricky juggling act that Tom works hard to maintain as he manages to narrowly avoid being discovered. Minghella gradually increases the tension as Tom’s ruse gets harder to maintain, especially with the Italian police breathing down his neck.
It would be easy to say that Tom suffers from multiple personality disorder but he does not. He is one man, with one mind, given to flights of fancy that lead to human degradation of the basest kind. He daydreams, he kills. The first third of The Talented Mr. Ripley resembles a Technicolor classic Hollywood movie like Roman Holiday (1953), then shifts gears into a psychological thriller a la Roman Polanski, and finally segues into a crime thriller as Tom tries to cover his tracks – and we wonder if he’s going to get away with it. The film gets darker and darker as the humanity is being drained from it every time Tom takes a life. It shows the absolute depravity that someone is capable of as Tom paints himself into a corner with the blood of his victims.
The look of The Talented Mr. Ripley mirrors its protagonist. It starts off with warm, sun-kissed colors, courtesy of John Seale’s cinematography, and gradually darkens as Tom gets deeper and deeper in trouble. The seaside color palette of the Italy in the film is worlds away from the regular day-to-day color palette of the New York City where we first meet Tom. However, when it comes to both clothing and architecture, vacationing by the seaside, houses are generally not your everyday bricks and mortar – they are light blue, coral and pink stucco. The same can be said about vacationing wardrobes. Gone are the grey flannel suits and navy blazers of the Upper East Side and in are shirttails out with white pants and Docksiders. Women’s hair is in ponytails, worn with bathing suits and pleated shorts. Gone are reading glasses, only to be replaced by designer sunglasses. It is the graceful ease of seaside living, for the rich, that is. As we near the third act of the movie, it is like summer vacation is over and we’re back to our mainland wardrobe – darker hues and heavier materials – a prime example of this is Tom wandering the decks of the ship wearing a poor boy’s black coat. Ripley is a visually gorgeous film…but beyond that, it is also rife with rich symbolism. For example, there are several times throughout where islands of rock are either passed in boats or in the background as part of the landscape. They are reminders of the magnificent L’Avventura (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni’s haunting masterpiece involving whimsical young adulthood, idyllic scenery, and dark philosophical mystery.
Patricia Highsmith wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955 while moving from Massachusetts to Santa Fe before going to Europe, where she lived most of her adult life. A child of divorce, she made a living early on writing for action comic books. Tom Ripley would become her favorite character and after the first novel, she wrote four more featuring him. She said of Tom, “He could be called psychotic but I would not call him insane because his actions are rational … I consider him a rather civilized person who kills when he absolutely has to.”
Producer William Horberg had read Highsmith’s novel in the mid-1980s and was immediately intrigued by the story. He left Paramount Pictures in 1992 to become a producer with Sydney Pollack’s company, Mirage Enterprises. He gave Pollack a first-edition hardcover copy of The Talented Mr. Ripley as a gift in the hopes that he’d be interested in making it into a film.
When Horberg made inquiries about the film rights to Ripley, he found that French producer Robert Hakim, who made the 1960 adaptation Purple Noon, still controlled the property. Horberg said, “Over the years I had heard many stories about filmmakers who pursued the property only to run into problems with him.” Producer Tom Sternberg knew the Hakim family and was also an admirer of Highsmith’s novel. After Robert died, his family asked Sternberg to set up Ripley as a film project in the United States.
Through his lawyer, Sternberg heard that Horberg and Pollack were also interested adapting the book. As it turned out, Hakim’s widow was a big fan of The Firm (1993), which Pollack directed. She and her daughters met with the filmmaker and agreed to sell the rights to his company. Paramount agreed to finance the project and helped in its development.
Horberg and Pollack were big fans of Anthony Minghella and sent him a copy of the book. He had first read the novel in 1980 and felt an affinity for its protagonist but “not in terms of what he did, but why he did it, and what he did that was at the heart of it, which was a sort of self-loathing, a sense of inadequacy, of being an outsider, a sense of yearning, to love and be loved.” He was the son of working class Italian parents and grew up on the Isle of Wight, where he felt that “every English person was a Dickie Greenleaf.” He was drawn to the material because he felt it had “one extraordinary idea in it, which is the idea of a man who commits murder but is never caught. I thought that was an audacious subject for an American movie particularly, which is so used to moral closure.”
He was about to make The English Patient but had to wait until his leading man – Ralph Fiennes – was finished his Broadway run of Hamlet. He finished the first draft of the screenplay as The English Patient started rehearsals in Rome and found the material so compelling that he wanted to direct Ripley as well. He asked the studio to wait until he finished his film and they did.
When it came to casting the role of Tom Ripley, Minghella saw Good Will Hunting and was impressed with Matt Damon’s performance, as well as his turn in Courage Under Fire (1996). The two men met and found that they were on the same page on how to depict Tom. To prepare for the role, Damon lost 25 pounds in order to appear pale and skinny, and spent a month learning how to play the piano, finding that his playing posture informed the way Tom sat and walked.
For the role of Dickie Greenleaf, Minghella met with many American actors but found that they couldn’t evoke the character’s “class snobbery” and he thought of Jude Law for the role. Initially, the actor was not keen on playing Dickie but Minghella won him over. Law was drawn to the part due to being “fascinated by the challenge of trying to make nasty characters likeable.” Minghella wrote the role of Marge Sherwood with Gwyneth Paltrow in mind and she was the first person he cast. Initially, she didn’t understand how interesting the character was but during the rehearsal process, she discovered “how full and complicated the role is.”
To prepare for making Ripley, Minghella rewatched Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and I Vitelloni (1953), as well as reading the memoirs of Paul Goodman and Paul Monette in order to get a handle on the cultural touchstones of the young American characters in Ripley. He also read Calvin Trillin’s “Remembering Denny,” about the writer’s Yale 1957 classmate Denny Hansen, a closeted gay varsity athlete who went to Europe as a Rhodes scholar.
The Talented Mr. Ripley received mostly positive to mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is an intelligent thriller as you’ll see this year.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Jude Law’s “star-making role for the preternaturally talented English actor Jude Law. Beyond being devastatingly good-looking, Mr. Law gives Dickie the manic, teasing powers of manipulation that make him ardently courted by every man or woman he knows.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Damon is at once an obvious choice for the part and a hard sell to audiences soothed by his amiable boyishness … But the façade works surprisingly well when Damon holds that gleaming smile just a few seconds too long, his Eagle Scout eyes fixed just a blink more than the calm gaze of any non-murdering young man. And in that opacity we see horror.”
The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “The Talented Mr. Ripley, as a case in point, is an often brilliant but ultimately confused murder melodrama in which there is no mystery to be solved, and no characters sympathetic enough to generate suspense about their fate in the patented Hitchcock manner.” However, in her review for the Village Voice, Amy Taubin criticized Minghella for turning, “The Talented Mr. Ripley into a splashy tourist trap of a movie. The effect is rather like reading The National Inquirer in a café overlooking the Adriatic.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote, “It ends up a dismayingly unthrilling thriller and bafflingly unconvincing character study. Ripley says he’d rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody – but a fake nobody is all we’re offered…”
“I always thought it’s better to be a fake somebody then a real nobody,” Tom says towards the closing of the film. The last shot – his reflection in a closet mirror as he replays the latest murder in his mind. Tom’s mirror image is a repeating motif throughout The Talented Mr. Ripley; one imagines his life as a hall of mirrors. Which one is the real Tom Ripley? Are we seeing the “real” Tom before the closet door closes into darkness and the film ends? Its final shot brilliantly, visually sums up what Tom is: a sociopath unable to truly love because when he gets too close to the object of his affection, his impulse is to destroy, lest he reveal too much of his real self.
“Cinderella Minghella.” The Guardian. February 16, 2000.
Luscombe, Belinda. “Matt Damon Acts Out.” Time. March 6, 2000.
Rich, Frank. “American Pseudo.” The New York Times. December 12, 1999.
Simon, Alex. “The Talented Mr. Minghella.” Venice Magazine. February 2000.
“The Talented Mr. Ripley: Part 1. Empire.
“The Talented Mr. Ripley: Part 2. Empire.
The Talented Mr. Ripley Production Notes. Miramax Pictures. 1999.