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Purple Noon

Yes, I know that this is a big day for movies. Today saw the release of Django Unchained and the adaptation of Les Miserables, two highly anticipated awards contenders. I promise I’ll get to them very soon, but not today. For one thing, pray forgive me if I’d rather spend the holiday relaxing at home with my parents. For another thing, I feel terribly sorry for all the employees at my local multiplex, forced to provide entertainment for so many filmgoers on freaking Christmas Day.

However, there will be a blog entry up today, and it comes courtesy of my Cousin Richard. As with every year, Cousin Richard marked this Christmas by sending us a grab bag of his surplus DVDs. The kicker is that he works for Turner Classic Movies. The DVDs he gets as part of his job are worth their weight in gold to a film geek like yours truly.

Year after year, we get DVD collections of classic films in every genre, from actors and filmmakers whom I’ve only ever heard about in song and legend. He gave us DVD sets of classic films from the Marx Brothers and Tarzan. Whole box sets of Burt Lancaster, Barbara Stanwyck, and Bette Davis. The Maltese Falcon and How the West Was Won on Blu-Ray. Just this year, we got collections of Frank Capra, Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Kirk Douglas, and Cary Grant. Oh, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (sans “Mystery Science Theater 3000”) found its way in there somehow.

For ages, I couldn’t even bring myself to open these DVDs. I found a demented kind of pleasure in knowing that they were sitting there unwrapped, like a rare action figure that was still mint in box. For another thing, there are so many movies in these annual shipments that I could only hope to get maybe halfway through them before the next batch comes along. But more than anything else, I keep these DVDs as an ego check. It’s a valuable thing to remember just how little one knows in the grand scheme of things.

Today, however, is the day when I finally crack one of these DVD cases open. Why? Well, it’s partly because I want to get a blog entry in and my family is quite determined to spend this holiday at home. But partly, it’s because for the first time ever, Cousin Richard sent us a Criterion DVD with this year’s shipment. Three Criterion DVDs, in fact.

If you don’t know what a Criterion DVD is or why it’s so special, I’ll direct you to this article I wrote last year. If you do know what a Criterion DVD is, then perhaps you can understand my thrill at finally adding one to my collection. And also, my shame at going this long without a Criterion disc in my library.

This particular Criterion disc is Purple Noon, a 1960 French adaptation of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” That’s another reason why I wanted to see this one: The 1999 Matt Damon adaptation has been on my “to-watch” list for quite some time.

The premise revolves around three characters. At one point is Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), a street rat with a unique gift for forging signatures, imitating voices, and other such acts of mimicry. At another point is Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), the prodigal son of a wealthy American. The two of them bond over a shared love of a carefree and extravagant lifestyle, gallivanting everywhere from Paris to Rome. The third point is Marge Duval (Marie Laforet), who enjoys a passionate yet somewhat rocky relationship with Philippe.

Tom steadily grows jealous of Philippe, just as Philippe shows increasing disdain for those things he takes for granted. The guy acts like a dick toward his girlfriend and almost kills Tom with a prank gone wrong, which leads Tom to take matters into his own hands. He kills off Philippe and learns to imitate him, shifting from one identity to the other as he tries to evade authorities, seduce Marge, and shuffle around the Greenleafs’ money to suit his own purposes.

There are so many layers to this story that I’m not sure where to begin. Break this story down into its base components and you’ll find 1. a love triangle, 2. a betrayal of brother versus brother, 3. a story of identity theft, 4. a morality play about murder and dishonesty, and 5. a cat-and-mouse crime thiller.

The first four concepts are as old as storytelling itself. The fifth is as old as cinema at least. All five of them are very powerful stories because they have some primal and familiar aspect to them that we can immediately latch onto. They all immediately evoke some kind of conflict or fear that’s been shared among humanity since prehistoric times. Even the fifth one, for example, is basically an expression of the endless conflict between crime and law. The point being that Purple Noon works so well precisely because it expertly and creatively blends all of these stories together into a single cohesive whole.

It’s important to note that neither Tom nor Philippe were ever meant to be sympathetic characters. That’s not to say Philippe was awful enough to deserve getting murdered, but it’s not exactly easy to mourn for the guy either, which raises a nice bit of thematic ambiguity to the mix. Regarding Tom, he’s entertaining to watch in the same way that any criminal intelligence is entertaining to watch: We get to see all the clever ways in which he maintains the cover, right up until some comeuppance finally catches up.

To be fair, I’ll grant that the film never actually shows whether Tom gets arrested or succeeds to keep running for another day. That isn’t clear, but it isn’t the point. The point is that Tom’s game is up. His lies have all come undone and everything that he worked for is an inch away from blowing up in his face. No matter what happens, there is absolutely no chance of a happy ending for him. And that’s how it has to be, or the “morality tale” aspect wouldn’t work.

The story to this film is outstanding, especially in the script’s intricate and whip-smart plotting. That said, the pacing is rather hit-and-miss. When the plot gets going, it’s on fire. When it lags, you’ll spend every second wishing that we could just get back to the story.

Aside from that, this movie is sterling on a technical level. The camerawork is awesome, especially in its depiction of exotic Italian locales. Even better, the film contains some shots of reflective surfaces and some action scenes on a relatively small boat. If you know anything about setting up a camera, you’d know that those are some of the hardest shots to get. Still, they look so beautiful that I’m left wondering how it was done.

Far more importantly, there’s the cast. Marie Laforet turns in some beautiful work as Marge, and Maurice Ronet is none too shabby as Philippe, either. Still, this film really belongs to Alain Delon. This was the first major role for a man who later went on to be a prolific actor in France, and that stardom is hard-earned here. Not only is Delon impossibly handsome and charming in this film, but he expertly and beautifully delivers a man caught between two identities. The intelligence, the desperation, and the total immorality of this character are all made plain to the audience with nothing but a twinkle in his eye. This is a masterpiece of a performance, though it helps that Delon was given such a meaty role to work with.

The story takes a long time to get going, and the pacing has a few hiccups besides. Even so, Purple Noon is an amazing story that’s wonderfully told. The expert camerawork and Delon’s lead performance should be reason enough to seek this film out. To be honest, I’m even more excited now about seeing the 1999 film, just so I can do some comparing and contrasting.

One Comment

  1. Ping from Christmas in Connecticut » Movie Curiosities:

    […] note: Some of my longtime readers may remember Cousin Richard from my¬†Purple Noon review, which he also made possible. The thought also occurs to me that he sent over the copy of […]

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