Sometimes the most disturbing films are not those that are obviously shocking but those that slowly creep under your skin and Plein Soleil (aka Purple Noon) is a classic example of this. The first on-screen appearance of Patricia Highsmith’s supremely cold-hearted villain Tom Ripley, director René Clément brilliantly mixes elements of Hitchcock with a decidedly French New Wave approach, and Alain Delon gives a charismatic, star-making performance as Ripley.
Based on Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Ripley” (filmed again in 1999 with Matt Damon as Ripley), the plot sees Tom Ripley in Italy, living it up on a boat with his wealthy friend, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet). Greenleaf’s father has employed Ripley to persuade his son to return to the US. However, Greenleaf Jr., ensconced on a boat, travelling the Italian coast with his girlfriend Marge, has no such plans – and Ripley may have more sinister intentions than Philippe realises.
The relationship between Ripley and Greenleaf drives the first part of the story, but even that is never entirely straightforward. Ripley starts as a clumsy, slightly dim, subservient "little brother" to Greenleaf, going along with his behaviour, as Greenleaf throws his father's money away like confetti. Eventually the whole film starts to revolve purely around Ripley, and he remains a fascinating, enigmatic character throughout. His motives are ambiguous, never as simply explainable as, for example, greed, envy, coveting Marge or even the need to "possess" or become Greenleaf, even though they may be all or none of those things.
Alain Delon is magnetic, looking a mixture of baby faced innocence and ridiculously handsome movie star. He is completely convincing as Ripley, and the switch in dynamic and behaviour, from charmer to amoral psychopath is creepy and chilling.
Plein Soleil has a number parallels with the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Most obviously is the fact that Hitch made a big screen version of another Highsmith novel, Strangers on a Train. There are other thematic similarities to the work of Hitchcock, such as murder, loss of identity, and relationships.
However, in some ways, in this film at least, Clement is the opposite of Hitchcock. He employs a number of techniques that are synonymous with the French New Wave of filmmaking, particularly the way the film is grounded very much in real life. Therefore, instead of filming the sequences on Greenleaf’s ship in a studio with an obviously projected backdrop, they are filmed out at sea, with a handheld camera, on an actual boat. This makes the actual scenes of them struggling to regain control of the ship in choppy waters, especially when being thrown overboard, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, almost unbearably tense, as there are clearly no special effects or stuntmen in use here.
The only real disappointment is the ending, which deviates from the novel. It feels like a needless concession to morality and jars noticeably with the amoral tone of the rest of the film. Nevertheless, there is still an air of ambiguity to the conclusion, and given the situations, Ripley has previously extricated himself from, maybe things are not as clear-cut as they might appear.