The movie doesn't attempt the detailed, matter-of-fact entry into Tom's warped mind that makes the novel so terrifying. (In some ways, Highsmith's book is like a cross between Henry James and Jim Thompson.) And it doesn't achieve the combination of queasiness and thrills that Hitchcock brought off in his Highsmith adaptation, Strangers on a Train. But right up to the moralistic, not-so-grand finale, Clement's sure-footed handling of the plot and performers holds you. Clement may not be inspired, but he's shrewd, and he's capable of master strokes, like showing Tom develop his forging skills by enlarging Phil's signature and projecting it on paper sheets pinned to a wall. Three-and-a-half decades haven't dulled the shock of seeing Tom dress in his opposite number's clothes and kiss his own image in the mirror, repeating words of love he's heard Phil mouth to his fiancee. Delon throws himself into the role. He's part passion flower, part Venus' flytrap, and he has a sort of feral wiliness. The badly altered ending wilts because it makes Tom out to be a chump -- and Delon is the wrong performer to communicate chumpiness. Throughout his years of stardom, no actor "spun" off-screen scandals (such as the 1969 murder of his bodyguard) more cunningly to augment rather than taint his movie image. Even near his career's start, in Purple Noon, he must have sensed he could use Tom Ripley's pretty-boy exoticism as a steppingstone. (David Shipman writes in The Great Movie Stars that years later, on British TV, Delon "admitted that he had been homosexual, but his succeeding remarks suggested that this was but one facet of a bizarre existence.")
Purple Noon wouldn't make my top 40 thrillers, but it is the most gorgeous film noir in color. Whether he's photographing an open-air fish market or a killing on the rolling sea, the great cinematographer Henri Decaë comes up with colors and images that are eye-popping and fetid at the same time: He creates a visual hothouse from which evil grows. When Delon's Tom Ripley stares at the face of a slimy ray, it looks like they're exchanging trade secrets.
The Nutty Professor and Phenomenon screen daily at area theaters. Purple Noon opens Wednesday, July 3, at the Embarcadero Center in
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