by Louis Proyect
(Swans - January 28, 2008) Well-read Americans might not be familiar with the name Patricia Highsmith. At least this was the case for me before I stumbled across the movie Ripley's Game on the IFC cable channel a couple of years ago.
Directed by Liliana Cavani and starring John Malkovich as Tom Ripley, a professional thief, it was quite unlike anything I had ever seen. Ripley, an American émigré living in rural France, pressures Jonathan Trevanny, a British frame shop owner in the local village who has never committed a crime in his life, to carry out a series of hits on Ripley's enemies in the Italian mafia. Since Trevanny is suffering from leukemia, Ripley reasons that he would be amenable to killing complete strangers for a handsome fee in order to help meet family expenses after his death. Ripley has another motive in recruiting Trevanny. At the start of the movie, Ripley overhears Trevanny describing his estate as typically nouveau riche and out of character with the French countryside. Further study on my part would reveal that the Ripley films, and the nonpareil novels they are based on, nearly always involve such class resentments at their core.
Eventually I discovered that Highsmith's Ripley's Game also provided the narrative for Wim Wenders's The American Friend that featured Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley and Bruno Ganz as the frame-maker Jonathan Zimmermann (a Germanized character in keeping with the film's relocation to Rotterdam from rural France). Wenders took some liberties with Highsmith's novels that are not quite successful in my view. The Ripley character seems more in keeping with Dennis Hopper's public image rather than the fictional character. With a cowboy hat lodged permanently on his head, Hopper's Ripley is much more macho than Highsmith's character, whose epicene malevolence is rendered far more successfully in Cavani's movie.
Since Ripley's Game was such an outstanding film, I was persuaded soon afterwards to watch The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on a much younger Tom Ripley's introduction to the criminal world. Starring Matt Damon as the title character, it involves Ripley's introduction to the world of the haute bourgeoisie. Hired by a shipping magnate to persuade his playboy son to return home to America from Italy, Tom Ripley allows himself to become the son's paid companion in a relationship that has strong homoerotic implications, another theme that is omnipresent in Highsmith's novels. When Tom Ripley learns that Dickie Greenleaf, the boating heir, has plans to dump him, he murders him and assumes his identity. Damon, like Malkovich, is adept at capturing the utterly cynical and amoral psyche of this most intriguing character.
As so often happens with excellent movies like Ripley's Game, I make an effort to read the novel upon which the screenplay is based in order to find out more about the author. Eventually I discovered that Highsmith's novels have inspired some of the finest movies over the past 50 years including her first, which provided the scenario for Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Like the Ripley novels, Strangers on a Train involves homoerotic themes and a penetrating study of the lifestyles of the rich and infamous. Unlike the movies, however, the novels are blessed by Highsmith's narrative voice, which is an utterly distinct one as demonstrated by this excerpt from Strangers on a Train.
That evening, Charles Anthony Bruno was lying on his back in an El Paso hotel room, trying to balance a gold fountain pen across his rather delicate, dished-in nose. He was too restless to go to bed, not energetic enough to go down to one of the bars in the neighborhood and look things over. He had looked things over all afternoon, and he did not think much of them in El Paso. He did not think much of the Grand Canyon either. He thought more of the idea that had come to him night before last on the train. A pity Guy hadn't awakened him that morning. Not that Guy was the kind of fellow to plan a murder with, but he liked him, as a person. Guy was somebody worth knowing. Besides, Guy had left his book, and he could have given it back.
For those who have seen Strangers on a Train, you will remember Bruno as the worthless rich boy who cuts a deal with the tennis pro Guy Haines (an architect in the novel), who he has met on the train. If Guy will kill Charles Bruno's wealthy father, thus facilitating his inheritance of a fortune, Bruno will kill Guy's estranged wife, another worthless person, who has refused to give him a divorce. In the movie, Guy Haines struggles to release himself from the deal, even after Bruno has killed his wife. Despite Hitchcock's dark sensibility, the movie is a sanitized version of the novel in which Guy Haines does carry out his end of the deal and is apprehended by the cops in the end.
This is not the only sanitized treatment of a Highsmith novel. In an otherwise masterful production, René Clément's 1960 treatment of The Talented Mr. Ripley released in France as Plein soleil (the title Full Sun becomes Purple Noon in the English release) ends with Tom Ripley being nabbed by the cops for murdering his patron Dickie Greenleaf. In the novel Ripley goes scot-free and inherits Dickie's fortune, thus proving that crime pays. It also downplays the homoerotic aspects, which is understandable given the period in which it was released. Starring Alain Delon as Tom Ripley and Maurice Ronet as Philippe Greenleaf (he has been Frenchified), the film does excel at showing the class distinctions between the two men. In one memorable scene that takes place on Greenleaf's yacht, Ripley is humiliated by his bourgeois companion for not using his silverware properly. Delon was cast perfectly in this underdog role, as indicated by a particularly useful Wiki article:
At 14, Delon left school, and worked for a brief time at his stepfather's butcher shop. He enlisted in the army three years later, and in 1953 was sent to fight in the First Indochina War. Delon has said that out of his five years of military service he spent 11 months in prison for being "undisciplined." After being dishonorably discharged from the army he returned to Paris. He had no money, and got by on whatever employment he could find. He spent time working as a waiter, a porter, and a sales clerk.
This is somebody who would understand in the marrow of his bones what it meant to be a Tom Ripley. In Highsmith's novel, we are introduced to the character as somebody who lives by his wits and on the fringes of the law. Indeed, he is even more dissolute than the character played by either Alain Delon or Matt Damon. He is sharing a seedy apartment with a window dresser (traditionally, a job done by gay men) where he spends his days sending out letters to unsuspecting victims in the name of the IRS demanding back tax payments.
When Dickie Greenleaf's father approaches him with the proposal to go over to Italy to persuade his son to return to the U.S., Tom Ripley leaps at the opportunity since it would enable him to leave this sordid life of petty crime behind. After joining Dickie, Tom finds himself more and more drawn to the wealthy young man, to the point of trying on his clothes one day in secret. Matt Damon draws out all the homoerotic implications of this act, Delon less so.
Ripley is caught in the act, however, and humiliated by his social better -- thus helping decide to take his eventual revenge. The scene is pivotal both to the American film (directed by the Briton Anthony Minghella) and Purple Noon. In Highsmith's novel, the writing conveys what is beyond any movie to convey, once again establishing the priority of the written word as an art form. (The Marge referred to in the dialog is Dickie Greenleaf's girlfriend.)
"What're you doing?"
Tom whirled around. Dickie was in the doorway. Tom realized that he must have been right below at the gate when he had looked out. "Oh—just amusing myself," Tom said in the deep voice he always used when he was embarrassed. "Sorry, Dickie."
Dickie's mouth opened a little, then closed, as if anger churned his words too much for them to be uttered. To Tom, it was just as bad as if he had spoken. Dickie advanced into the room.
"Dickie, I'm sorry if it—"
The violent slam of the door cut him off. Dickie began opening his shirt, scowling, just as he would have if Tom had not been there, because this was his room, and what was Tom doing in it? Tom stood petrified with fear.
"I wish you'd get out of my clothes," Dickie said.
Tom started undressing, his fingers clumsy with his mortification, his shock, because up until now Dickie had always said wear this and wear that that belonged to him. Dickie would never say it again.
Dickie looked at Tom's feet. "Shoes, too? Are you crazy?"
"No." Tom tried to pull himself together as he hung up the suit, then he asked, "Did you make it up with Marge?"
"Marge and I are fine," Dickie snapped in a way that shut Tom out from them. "Another thing I want to say, but clearly," he said, looking at Tom, "I'm not queer. I don't know if you have the idea that I am or not."
"Queer?" Tom smiled faintly. "I never thought you were queer."
Dickie started to say something else, and didn't. He straightened up, the ribs showing in his dark chest. "Well, Marge thinks you are."
"Why?" Tom felt the blood go out of his face. He kicked off Dickie's second shoe feebly, and set the pair in the closet. "Why should she? What've I ever done?" He felt faint. Nobody had ever said it outright to him, not in this way.
"It's just the way you act," Dickie said in a growling tone, and went out the door.
Although Patricia Highsmith wrote almost exclusively about the homoerotic tensions between male characters, she knew the gay life from her own experience as a lesbian. Written under the pseudonym Clare Morgan, her 1952 Price of Salt is the story of a love affair between two women based on her own coming out experience in New York. Along with Gore Vidal's 1947 The City and the Pillar, it is an honest account of the gay experience and a breakthrough for American fiction.
Like Gore Vidal, Highsmith's outsider sexual identity went hand in hand with outsider politics. As a student at Barnard College in New York City, Highsmith discovered an attraction for communism around the same time that she discovered an attraction for other women. As a native Texan, she found herself marching to the tune of a different drummer from an early age. Eventually, the contradictions of living in a society that was hostile to her political views and sexual identity became unbearable and she moved to France.
Despite working almost exclusively in the crime genre, Highsmith was not the typical pulp fiction author. In everything she wrote, there was an affinity with the more complex psychological novels that she studied as an undergraduate, including such favorites as Gide and Dostoevsky. Indeed, as one of the few openly gay novels of the 1920s, Gide's The Counterfeiters had a major influence on Highsmith's work. With a plot focused on forgery (Tom Ripley's specialty) and its shifting identities -- including the use of a pseudo-author -- one can see how Gide's masterpiece informed Highsmith's work. Andrew Wilson's very perceptive biography of Highsmith titled Beautiful Shadow: a Life of Patricia Highsmith makes this connection clear:
For Gide and for Highsmith, feelings, like love, were prone to the fantastical fluctuations. Highsmith's protagonists bore witness to Gide's theory, outlined at the end of The Counterfeiters, that emotions taken on as pretence, those which are feigned, can be felt as keenly as so-called 'real' feelings. Just as Gide uses the counterfeited gold coins to symbolise the notion of the fabricated personality, so Highsmith would work out elaborate plots featuring fakes and con-men in order to explore the mercurial fluidity of human identity.
It seems as if Highsmith used Gide's novel as a blueprint for her writing; she reread it in late 1947, together with his journals and Corydon [four dialogues on homosexuality written in the spirit of Socrates] and looked to the character of Edouard as a kind of fiction-dised mentor figure. Like Edouard, Highsmith believed that reality did not exist unless she saw it reflected in her journal, while she also subscribed to his theory of depersonalisation, the ability of writers to negate their identities and take on the qualities of others. Such writerly empathy, Edouard states, 'enables me to feel other people's emotions as if they were my own'. Similarly, Highsmith, in her notebooks, often wrote about how her imagination provided her with inner experiences which were more 'real' than the actuality being played out around her. Although she was occasionally attacked for creating characters riddled with inconsistencies and illogicalities, Highsmith articulates the paradox of human nature: the irrationality of the civilised rational man. Gide, in The Counterfeiters, expressed another contradiction -- the fact that in fiction one is often presented with men and women who behave in a logical fashion, while in real life it is common to meet people who behave irrationally.
With the advent of the 1960s radicalization, Patricia Highsmith became more outspoken on the issues tearing apart the United States. She opposed the war in Vietnam and took a keen interest in the plight of the Palestinians, as Andrew Wilson makes clear:
In an unpublished essay Highsmith wrote about the Middle East conflict in August 1992, she outlined the historical background that had formulated her position. When Israel was created -- in May 1948, while Highsmith was at Yaddo, writing Strangers on the Train -- following the withdrawal of the British, she remembers feeling optimistic about its future. 'How happy and cheerful we all were then, gentiles and Jews alike!' she wrote. 'A new state had been born, and was therefore to be welcomed into the community of democracies.' Yet soon after the state was formed -- initially an area comprising of Jewish and Arab land, together with an internationally administered zone around Jerusalem -- it was invaded by Arab forces, a move which in turn prompted Israeli troops to seize and gain control of three-quarters of Palestine. Highsmith was appalled at what she saw as Israeli brutality and insensitivity, remembering how some of her Palestinian friends were forced to flee their homeland. Since then, of course, the area has been the site of a series of complex, and increasingly violent, power struggles, yet from the beginning Highsmith aligned herself with other writers such as Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky and Edward W. Said, who believed in Palestinian self-determination. In December 1994, Highsmith nominated a collection of Said's essays and talks, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969-1994, as her book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement, commenting that she thought him 'both famous and ignored. His eloquence on the real issues makes America's silence seem all the louder.' Highsmith agreed with Said's opinion that the alliance between Zionism and the United States had resulted in the continued displacement of Palestinians. As a result, she felt forced to take a stand, no matter how small. After the election of Menachem Begin as Prime Minister in 1977, Highsmith would not allow her books to be published in Israel. 'I'm sure the world couldn't care less, but it shows that not every American refuses to see what's happening,' she said. In interviews she told journalists that she loathed Ariel Sharon and the Likud party, and that she found America's support of the Israeli regime to be despicable.
'Americans and the world know that America gives so lavishly to Israel,' she wrote, 'because the United States wanted Israel as a strong military bulwark against Soviet Russia during the Cold War. Now that the Cold War is over, America has cut none of its aid . . . What is an American tax-payer to make of the fact that the USA gives thirteen million dollars a day, still, to Israel without any request for repayment? . . . I blame my own country for the majority of injustices now being inflicted by the Israelis in what they consider Greater Israel... I blame [the] American government for the bad press permitted about the Arabs in the United States.'
As someone who has written about spy genre novelists in the past for Swans (e.g., Eric Ambler's A Coffin For Dimitrios and Alan Furst's Red Gold), I am happy to recommend Patricia Highsmith's crime genre novels to its readers. While a source of great entertainment, the crime novel has the distinction of being able to serve as commentary on the phenomenon described by Honoré de Balzac in Le Père Goriot: "behind every great fortune lies a great crime."
Ernest Mandel, the great Belgian Marxist economist and Trotskyist politician, was a life-long fan of crime novels and took time off from his busy schedule to write Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story in 1984.
In the chapter titled Inward Diversification, Mandel treats the class detective story in which the hero (Sherlock Holmes, et al.) outwits the villain as a kind of parable on commodity production in the early competitive days of industrial capitalism:
However, there is a more fundamental quality of the thriller and spy novel that justifies treating them as distinct sub-species of the original detective story, despite all that they have in common. The detective outwits the criminal essentially by means of logical prowess. The paraphernalia of the trade -- Sherlock Holmes's magnifying glass or chemical retorts -- are mere secondary tools, subordinated entirely to Reason. The criminal, too, is clever, and often outwits the police, but cannot outwit the great detective's super-brain.
Here we have the purest, most elementary expression of bourgeois society: commodity production and commodity circulation under conditions of perfect competition. Everything is rational, totally geared to the maximization of income (profits), through continual cuts in production costs and sales costs including profit margins). All's well that ends well. In the end, rational individual economic behaviour by all will bring the maximum well-being (including the satisfaction of the consumer) to the maximum number of individuals. Let the best one win (Sherlock Holmes, not the criminal), and this will be good for everybody, including the criminal (if not for his body, at least for his immortal soul).
With the arrival of monopoly capitalism, however, reason has more and more trouble triumphing over irrationality, particularly in the era of fascism. A Sherlock Holmes has little chance of coming out on top of a jackbooted SS member who would defy the law even when confronted by his guilt. To get to the top of the heap under such a system, having superior intelligence is insufficient. Instead you need cunning and determination, two qualities that typify Tom Ripley, the quintessential modern man.
The crime novelist of the monopoly capitalism epoch can even decide to subvert the norms of the genre by making the criminal rather than the detective the real hero. Indeed, Mandel points to Patricia Highsmith as best representing this category. In Ripley's world, the criminal always comes out on top. Even if Tom Ripley achieves his goals through brutal violence and a talent for falsehood, he will be a mere piker in comparison to the men who have invaded Iraq and wrought the financial scams that have resulted in the forfeiture of millions of American homes. Unlike Ripley, who retains a raffish charm throughout the series of novels that bear his name, these criminals evoke nothing but disgust and a fervent desire to disarm them before they manage to destroy the planet.
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