Plein soleil (1960)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Stealing a friend’s identity is such a tricky engagement. The next thing you know there are dead bodies to get rid of. Police are knocking on your door. Common friends are not only asking of your whereabouts but also the missing friend’s—the very identity you’re now living.
René Clément’s high-level thriller “Purple Noon,” based on the novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith, demands that not only we identify with a killer but also hope that he get away with his crimes. Casting Alain Delon as Tom Ripley is a masterstroke because not only he is preternaturally handsome, there is constant hunger in the eyes. It is in this unquenchable hunger that we connect with—the dream of living a lavish life by which money is no object. It just so happens that the character we perceive the story from is amoral.
There is a detachment in how the story is shot which complements Tom’s cold-blooded rationality. Moments of violence occur instantaneously, often precise and impersonal. The camera rarely budges even during the most intense episodes. Sound effects are calibrated just so in order for us to hear or see the final moment of a character drawing his last breath. Meanwhile, the manner in which Tom relates to other people, mere chess pieces on a board in his mind, is convincing on the surface but quite telling when he is alone in a room or as he looks at himself in the mirror, the crippling silence emphasizing the truth that he is a sham, a nobody.
There is, however, emphasis on suspense: the picture ensures that the details of Tom taking over the identity of Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), a playboy he is tasked to convince to return to San Francisco, are carefully laid out and disturbing. Particularly impressive is the sequence where he learns to forge a passport photo and practices writing Philippe’s signature using a projector. Just for a moment we imagine an alternate reality where a moral Tom finds a healthy outlet for his talents. He is obsessive with his craft. And then just as quickly we are demanded to pay attention as stakes become that much higher.
Delon accomplishes a delicate task. The character is a murderer and so lesser performers tend to give in to the inclination that such a person be portrayed as a unlikable thereby creating a risk of painting a one-dimensional bore. But not Delon. When the camera goes for closeups, the actor ensures to communicate the most minute emotions with enough clarity so that we can create a picture in our minds about what it is that Tom is possibly thinking or feeling, like a rat making decisions as it crawls its way through a maze. It is crucial that Delon never relies solely on his looks because doing so risks our perception of the character, how smart and cunning he is, especially at his most desperate.