The Time Is Now for Patricia Highsmith, High Priestess of Sociopathology

highsmith-talented mr ripley

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Based on a Book by Patricia Highsmith
January 19-23 at the Metrograph

The time is ripe for Patricia Highsmith. Her greatest creation is a blond fraud and expert manipulator whose chief difference from the new American president is his infinitely superior taste in music, art, food, decorating and company (that and the openly documented murders). Toggling between identities to suit his current audience, Tom Ripley is a suave, chameleonic con artist and sociopath whose narcissistic tendencies are checked by an only partially self-preserving preference for anonymity and the comfortable quiet life. Politics, Twitter and “Thank You” tours would not conform to his anti-vulgar, epicurean manner. But it’s not just Ripley who seems at home in 2017—almost all of Highsmith’s writing is marked by the word friend and fan Graham Greene used to sum up his favorite of her novels, The Tremor of Forgery: “apprehension.” A master plotter whose favorite writers included Kafka and Dostoyevsky, Highsmith likes to torture her protagonists, multiplying turns of the screw until the inevitable slabs of collateral damage end up seeming better off than the harassed “hero.” Even in the romance The Price of Salt, the euphoric consummation of the female main characters’ love affair is immediately punished, infected with paranoia and guilt by the discovery of a hateful wiretap device arranged by a husband. The eventual ambiguous-but-happy ending doesn’t completely wash away that apprehension.

Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and director Todd Haynes adapted The Price of Salt for the 2015 film Carol, one of over a dozen feature Highsmith retellings, and showing along with five others at The Metrograph beginning on what would have been the writer’s 96th birthday. Highsmith wrote the novel under the name “Claire Morgan” so as not to be pegged “a lesbian-book writer,” and to maintain her budding brand identity as a thriller writer, based mostly on the success of her first novel, Strangers on a Train. What appear to be repressed homosexuals populate her fiction, notably Ripley, who crushed hard on his first victim (Dickie Greenleaf) and shares a bed with a man in The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and whose alienated, othered view of humankind could be considered queer. Highsmith was generally annoyed by Oedipal over-readings; in the words of Nagy, she was “loathe to let any one of her male characters completely out of the closet.” But in The Price of Salt, the love and sex are consensual and, for the participants if not polite “morality clause” society, normal, and they don’t lead to ruin, dementia or disgrace as would’ve been more typical for literature of the time. Nagy and Haynes honor this groundbreaking text which entered the world as lurid paperback pulp with their elegantly rueful and, as shot by Ed Lachman, visually gorgeous adaptation, perfectly acted by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara but also an undersung Kyle Chandler as Carol’s well-meaning but sinister lug husband and Sarah Paulson as an ever-hovering and single family friend (and godmother to Carol’s daughter). Carefully cherry-picked old-German Cincinnati doubles wonderfully as 1950s New York, and Nagy’s only significant alteration (making Therese a photographer instead of a set designer) enriches her partial function as an awed, audience surrogate admirer of Carol/Cate.

Highsmith-carol

A similar switch was made in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). Highsmith’s Guy Haines is an aspiring architect. Hitchcock’s is a tennis player with political ambitions played by the great Farley Granger, and the change (it’s unclear which of the screenplay’s multiple authors, which included Raymond Chandler, made that one) allows for some potent “the ball’s in your court now” metaphor and the tour de force crosscutting between Guy’s aggro final match and Bruno’s foiled quest to plant Guy’s lighter on the scene of Bruno’s murder of Guy’s wife. The “criss-cross” killing of Bruno’s father that Guy was supposed to return the “favor” with does not happen in the film, the big softening change that irked Highsmith, though she adored Robert Walker’s devilish, pathetic-but-charming performance as spoiled mama’s boy psychopath Bruno (and who doesn’t?). Walker is a marvel, whether elaborating on his perfect murder theories, cackling at his mother’s grotesque painting which he assumes to be of daddy (“That’s the old boy alright!”), popping a child’s balloon with a cigarette or having murderous strangling flashbacks while staring into the bespectacled face of Pat Hitchcock. All is doubling, down to the director hoisting a double bass that could pass for his own body bag onto the train in his cameo. But all of the film student-bait layered meanings in seemingly every shot detract not at all from the entertainment value, peaking with the merry-go-round conflagration finale that remains panic-inducing.

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It’s not surprising that Hitchcock acolyte Claude Chabrol would also get around to plumbing Highsmith with 1987’s The Cry of the Owl. Her disturbing thriller-adjacent drama about a peeping Tom who starts a celibate affair with the object of his gaze, initiating a cycle of death among everyone he knows, is perfectly suited to Chabrol’s arch perversity and mastery of interior spaces. The Hitchcock influence, split diopter shots and presence of owls evoke Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, but Chabrol’s film is a softer and more muted affair, until bullets start zipping through windows. The novel’s second-tier city Pennsylvania and Manhattan have been switched to France/Paris, possibly only for ease of shooting’s sake. Leads Christophe Malavoy and Mathilda May are perhaps a little too chic and attractive to be engaging in such pathetic behavior, but the film’s cooly malevolent atmosphere is sustained and assisted by the lush score by the director’s son, Matthieu.

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Malavoy’s hollow prowler in The Cry of the Owl (“I’m not the stablest character,” he charitably phrases it in the novel) is another of Highsmith’s great empties, her male characters with some inner lacking whose origin she generally only skirts around, and whose dubiously inspired actions typically result in violence for which they may or may not be punished. The prime exemplar of this is, of course, Ripley, the focus of three of this series’ films. René Clément had a first crack with Purple Noon, his 1960 adaptation of the first Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, published five years prior. The pre-New Wave director Clément made some interesting films (Battle of the Rails, Forbidden Games, Is Paris Burning?) but his take on Ripley is a bit toothless, particularly an ending that implies that the untouchable identity thief and killer is soon to be arrested. There’s much to recommend it, like pretty Naples, Rome and Alain Delon (as Tom), but there’s an air of campiness (Nino Rota’s brassy score doesn’t help) that dulls the menace. Anthony Minghella, fresh off The English Patient, improved upon it with his tony 1999 version that used the novel’s title. For his Dickie Greenleaf, Jude Law clearly studied Maurice Ronet in the earlier film, as he perfects the same born-rich (and bored rich) entitlement, including the tan, sneer and mannerisms. Matt Damon brings the same benign-seeming deceptiveness mixed with emotional vacancy that he’d later manage in The Departed, here transforming convincingly from pale American beach tourist to ice cold Dickie clone. Shot by John Seale, the film is postcard porn par excellence, with a best in show supporting turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman as fey, supercilious jazz hipster Freddie (“Tommy, quit your peeping”) Miles.

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Altogether odder than either of those is Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977), based on Ripley’s Game but also incorporating elements of Ripley Under Ground. It’s just as stylish as Minghella’s film, but its style is employed not for glimpses of envy-inducing wealth and couture, but in service of a growing nausea, mirroring the paranoia of poor Ripley pawn Jonathan (Bruno Ganz), a frame shop owner with a mortal illness whom Ripley indirectly induces to be an assassin. Inspired by Edward Hopper, Wenders and the great cinematographer Robby Müller find indelible images everywhere, to the point that it’s disorienting. Dennis Hopper’s urban cowboy Ripley is nothing like Highsmith’s creation, but the choice to have him living alone in a cold stone mansion, or taking Polaroid selfies of himself lying on a bar’s pool table, cuts to the heart of the character’s inner bankruptcy (though his eventual attempts to help Jonathan do hint at a conscience). Wenders wanted John Cassavetes for the role, and he did end up casting other directors, including an on-death’s-door Nicholas Ray, Gerard Blain, Sam Fuller and Jean Eustache.

Highsmith, though a music lover, was not a film buff, and so probably didn’t nerd out to those auteur walk-ons, and she was initially alarmed by Wenders’s film until she gained an appreciation for Hopper’s interpretation upon a second viewing. Described alternately as mean and nasty or funny and charming as a person, she was an exacting craftswoman in her art, never placing stylistic tricks or language games above character and plot (which made the excessive Wenders such a thrilling counterintuitive interpreter). Her dark vision offers, in biographer Joan Schenkar’s words, a “shimmering negativity” about humankind and the American Dream, ideally fitted reading and viewing for a black moment in history.

Highsmith-Strangers on a Train

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