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The Most Stylish Scammer: 20 Years of ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’

Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film adaptation, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the coast of Italy, has become a cult classic (and a warning)

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Not every good movie has an opera scene, but every movie with an opera scene is good. In the 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, that scene shows the man we know as Tom Ripley—his date thinks his name is Dickie Greenleaf—watching Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with an intensity to match the performances. It’s the duel scene, in which one man kills another out of pride, or social conventions, or some similar obligation to the human ego. While the wounded man lies dying, the victor holds his body and cries, the red fabric intended to approximate blood spilling out from the actor’s costume and blanketing the stage below them.

Opera in film serves a purpose—the stage is the ideal backdrop for the drama happening between audience members, what is behind the scenes playing out in the seats facing the performers. I think often of the opera glasses that focus on Countess Olenska while she watches Faust in the opening scene of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, her recent divorce the true show for the crowd. In the same way I remember the scene in Margaret when J. Smith-Cameron and Anna Paquin give each other permission to weep, because the catharsis of their shared grief is small compared to “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” from Les Contes d’Hoffmann. In watching Tom’s face, we’re approaching the end of our story with him: the story of an incidental confidence man and his beautiful marks, a tragedy well suited to an operatic scope and scale.

In the 20 years since release, The Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie about looks and reflections, remains one of our best-looking contemporary films. Minghella’s adaptation of the 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel is concerned with surfaces, and the depths they conceal. This Ripley is a movie about the intimacy of objects. Visually, the film remains stunning for its lush evocation of depravity concealed by good manners and better clothes; texturally, the depth of feeling is as enduring as the bloodstain that won’t wash off.

We now have our own lexicon for scammers—a contemporary crew of grifters that lack the style Highsmith afforded hers, though many of them still try to claim Ripley as a reference. Like the attention to aesthetic details of the wealthy and wretched, it is the fact of emotions themselves that sets Minghella’s Ripley apart from other adaptations, in fiction and in real life. Any feeling expressed rather than suppressed—even just a single tear falling down Tom’s cheek while he watches the opera—is a departure from its provenance, yet maybe the reason it has become the definitive Ripley. Highsmith, Minghella, and Ripley were all obsessed with beauty not because it is good but because it is capable of being the exact opposite. Audiences have the luxury of wondering: What if our obsessions are not just weaknesses but also a warning? In the straightforward adulation for the finer things of life, Ripley is strangely sympathetic to those who would kill to be closer to owning a well-tailored blazer and an apartment in Italy, to having the kind of complexion made better in the sun and hair that just waves like that naturally. For those watching a story unfold, secure that as observers they are without blame—but perhaps not without their own guilt—what is murder if not an inevitable consequence of wanting what you can’t have?

In order to see Tom Ripley, the character, you must first look at Patricia Highsmith, the novelist. Prolific and driven, she had her own pronounced and contradictory talents. By all accounts, she had a real sense of style—for outfits, women, and fictional criminal activity. My favorite essay about her is by Margaret Talbot, who begins by saying: “In December of 1948, Patricia Highsmith was a twenty-seven-year-old aspiring writer with a murderous imagination and an outsized talent for seducing women.”

She was also a misanthropic and hateful racist with unrepentantly cruel views of basically every person she met. Highsmith’s sensitivity to the unequal and oppressive distribution of wealth and power never evolved past the resentful affinity required to try and claim it for herself. She met James Baldwin at a dinner party and wrote to a friend that, as she had expected, he was “an interesting pain in the ass.” She referred to the Holocaust as either “Holocaust Inc.,” or sometimes the “semicaust,” because it killed only half of the world’s Jewish population. Her life-long political cause was that taxes were too high for Americans living abroad. She unsuccessfully tried to get Mary McCarthy, over the course of a short-lived epistolary friendship, to join her in this fight; she declined. McCarthy didn’t even seem to know much about her friend’s work, once asking whether this “Tom Ripley” Highsmith constantly referred to was a pop singer.

Highsmith never felt appreciated in the United States, and spent much of her professional life living in Europe. Like Henry James, whose novel The Ambassadors is the key reference for The Talented Mr. Ripley—a high-concept story designed to reveal that the distinction between classes is less a divide than a fabric woven into every part of life—she believed the great American novel must be set abroad. When writing the first Ripley, she read Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, trying to understand the country she was born and raised in from the point of view of an outsider.

Highsmith didn’t consider Tom her alter ego, but there are parallels in preference. Later novels would have Highsmith giving Tom the same clothes she liked to wear: pressed Levis, plush bathrobes, matching pajama sets. She gave him some of her obsessive habits, like his desire for the finer things in life, his skill for imitation, and influence over men and women alike. The most obvious references to Ripley’s sexuality happen when she gives him the same nightstand books as her own: Christopher Isherwood, the Richard Ellmann biography of Oscar Wilde. In a radio interview, Highsmith once said that Ripley was her favorite “hero-criminal”: When readers remember him he’ll be forever 34, forever one foot in the grave, forever getting away.

In her excellent biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith, Joan Schenkar also points out that Highsmith got her start writing comic books, stories that relied on secret identities and the magical properties of clothing. Disguises and other forgeries were a convoluted form of heroism in what would become known as one of the few art forms invented in the United States. Highsmith was the most consistently contracted scriptwriter for comic books during their golden age, the late 1930s to the early 1950s, when characters such as Captain America, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman were being introduced. A mutual acquaintance once tried to set her up on a date with Stan Lee. This did not work out for many reasons too obvious to list here.

Schenkar, when writing about Highsmith’s relationship to comic books, says what Highsmith would rather have left implicit. Highsmith aspired to a literary style that would take her far away from comic books—plots rather than scenarios, characters rather than archetypes, villains who brought upon their own defeat and heroes no one liked. Beloved in Europe but sidelined in the States—comparing Highsmith to Superman in Europe and Clark Kent at home feels at this point almost compulsory. Schenkar points out that Highsmith was as cruel to her characters as Henry James was to his, while also writing about all-American outsiders in a way that made her approach seem like she had crash-landed from another planet; everything human was alien to Highsmith. Like her characters, she was also reaching for something they can’t quite claim and aren’t even sure they should want.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is now a cult classic with a strange arc: Living in near poverty in New York, Tom Ripley is mistaken for an Ivy League classmate of the wealthy, handsome Dickie Greenleaf. The Greenleaf family is desperate to get Dickie back from Italy—his mother is sick, but also it’s implied that he’s squandering his trust fund. Tom accepts some cash and travel expenses in exchange for doing his best to bring Dickie home. When he arrives, however, Tom is immediately captivated by Dickie’s way of life, and begins to wonder: Why should Dickie come home? He has a girlfriend named Marge whom Tom doesn’t approve of, but besides that, he has a beach, a boat, a beautiful signet ring, and a tastefully decorated apartment—every natural and material freedom he could ever want. More than that, Dickie has the assurance of a man who believes he both deserves what he has and could always, upon deciding so, get much more. Dickie’s life may be hollow and his vapidity a cover for deep reserves of cruelty, but no one could argue with the fact that he makes it look good.

The relationship between the two men turns on itself, with neither entirely certain they like what the other sees in them, or whether they want to be examined that closely. Tom kills Dickie and assumes his identity, and then spends much of the remaining story eluding capture and detection. He gets away with it, as long as the reader or watcher has a very elastic definition of what “getting away with it” means. Soon, though, the killing requires more killings, and in a bizarre twist the police come to believe that Dickie has killed Tom. Tom resumes his old identity in order to avoid being arrested as Dickie, and then fakes Dickie’s suicide in order to claim the remaining Greenleaf inheritance from the will he forges.

Ripley resonates in each retelling because it is so dependent on multiple interpretations. Every reading contains the potential to find another perspective. In Purple Noon, the 1960 film directed by René Clément, there’s less deception between the two main characters: Dickie, as played by Maurice Ronet and renamed Philippe, is cruel and aggressive, torturing Tom (Alain Delon, probably the most handsome of all the Tom Ripleys) by lecturing him on table manners and stranding him on a rowboat until he gets sunstroke. The cast of Purple Noon always looks sweaty and salty, their deceptions settling into their pores along with their tans. “It’s fun, seeing how much he’ll take,” Philippe says to Marge. The murder takes place over a card game, with Philippe fully aware that Tom is planning to kill him and, in his arrogance, almost daring him to do so. After the murder, when the police are investigating Tom, an officer leans against a wardrobe and doesn’t even notice it’s full of Philippe’s jackets. In what would be a true nightmare for the original and later interpretations of Tom, this film ends with his marrying Marge in order to secure the inheritance he’s left for them both in Philippe’s forged will.

Later film adaptations are taken from later Ripley books, five total published between 1955 and 1991. After Talented, there was Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and Ripley Under Water. In 1977, Wim Wenders adapted Ripley’s Game into The American Friend, a very loose adaptation that featured Dennis Hopper as a subdued Tom in manner and extravagant in dress. This Ripley is an art thief. He sleeps on red silk sheets and wears cowboy hats around Hamburg, calling attention to himself because he is so unstylish. There was Liliana Cavani’s 2002 adaptation of Ripley’s Game, in which John Malkovich plays the most disturbing and coldly evil Ripley. His sense of humor is sociopathically stylish—in the first scene of the film he insults his accomplice by saying: “Don’t threaten me, I’m not the one wearing an earring.”

Minghella’s 1999 adaptation is the standout, for a simple, shallow reason: the film looks as good as the pain it inflicts. Like every good melodrama, Ripley is a story dependent on misinterpreting cruelty as romance, and on misreading beauty as inherently good—just because something is superficial doesn’t mean it’s not deep. Minghella keeps Highsmith’s thriller element, though loses the noir in favor of tortured love: A heist movie in slow motion, Ripley’s motives reveal themselves in the moment. But he comes to the melodrama genre honestly, with much coded commentary on unspoken assumptions. In 1999, that meant adding some characters to the story, and changing others; it also meant bringing some subtext into the foreground, for a different understanding of love triangles and other small betrayals. As Frank Rich wrote in a New York Times Magazine profile of Minghella published the same year the film was released, he also fast-forwarded to the late 1950s, putting his main characters in Italy’s “il boom,” a “postwar prosperity” of decadent indulgences for a country long denied all kinds of pleasures. We meet our characters living in a time before reliable telephone lines or the pill, but after fast cars and relaxed sexual standards.

When Highsmith introduced her readers to Tom, he was already a petty criminal, scamming freelance culture workers by posing as an Internal Revenue Service agent who regretted to inform them they had underpaid their taxes, and would they please send the revised amount to his address in Manhattan, for normal reasons? However, when Minghella introduces us to Tom, he’s much less compromised—he’s simply filling in as a piano accompanist for a friend, wearing a borrowed Princeton jacket before running to make his shift as a bathroom attendant at a lavish performance space. When the audience leaves and before the janitor catches him, he plays the piano on the stage, indulging his fantasy of being watched.

As Tom Ripley, Matt Damon will never seem younger than he does in this performance. Played in the film’s first act with a sort of guileless grace, Tom lapses into the strange role the Greenleaf family assigns, playing it like an accident but oddly prepared for action. This is a sweet, possibly stupid, version of Tom, one who is quickly and completely seduced by Dickie.

“Everyone should have one talent,” Dickie says the first afternoon they spend together at his home in Mongibello, a small village in Italy that Dickie selected for its charm and inaccessibility. “What’s yours?” Forging signatures, telling lies, imitations of practically anyone, Tom quickly replies. “No one should have more than one talent,” Dickie quips in return. As played by Jude Law, Dickie is dangerous—a beauty who makes those who want him undignified in their recklessness. His face carries its own force. Highsmith wrote Dickie as a painter; Minghella makes him a jazz enthusiast and amateur saxophone player, holding court at a local jazz club like he owns the place. Jazz, like the comic books that Highsmith wrote, is another of the few art forms native to the United States. It is telling that the character who represents an entire class of entitled wealthy white American men is the one who claims jazz for himself. “Who are you?” sneers Dickie when he thinks Tom is out of line. “Who are you to tell me anything?” Tom cannot answer in words.

Tom is, by contrast, noticeably socially awkward, yet he isn’t inept—he can tell in conversations not which responses are expected or required, but better yet which ones are preferred. In Minghella’s version, Tom takes a risk by making Dickie a co-conspirator. When asked to prove his skill for imitation, Tom does an uncanny version of the conversation he had with Dickie’s father, revealing why he’s really been sent there. Together, the two of them decide to swindle Dickie’s father for more allowance and subsequently way more fun.

Dickie’s talent is simply for making everything seem fun. In this, his preferred form is fashion, the best arena for proof of good taste. His activities—sailing, skiing, sunning, drinking, and extra-curricular fucking—are all hallmarks of high society and good breeding. The home he rents is sparsely furnished, desks and chairs and saintly iconography all expertly crafted and exquisitely practical. Dickie’s outfits are worn in that just-so way wealthy people like to dress as though they work; cream-colored pants and loose, silky button-down short sleeve shirts, cashmere sweaters with V-necks that dip just below the collarbone. When Dickie wears a jacket, it falls down his back like a second spine. When Dickie wears a hat, he looks stupid, but in a hot way.

Dickie is in a relationship with Marge, a character written with pure hatred by Highsmith and rehabilitated by Minghella in his choice of casting—Gwyneth Paltrow at the apex of her early fame, with just enough cachet to play a version of the Hitchcock blond that neither complicates nor contradicts her career up until that point. Slender, poised, radiant in her tan and tousled white-blond hair, Paltrow’s performance is kinder than Law’s in that first act, showing a fondness for Tom that lasts longer than Dickie’s patience. But this is not the love triangle that tips the film into its violent second act—it is the appearance of Freddie Miles, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, that reveals and develops the uncomfortable, ugly power dynamic among them. Freddie is of Dickie’s world, and already has a claim to Dickie’s attention; he is not prepared to lose it to anyone, but makes it clear that losing it to someone like Tom would be an unacceptable insult. Freddie and Tom seem to have something in common—both of them are terrible at disguising their attraction to Dickie, believing that just because it is unsaid it is unseen—but Dickie is more forgiving of Freddie for the simple fact of class solidarity. After Freddie shows up, everything turns, a fact that Marge seems most aware of. When Dickie gives you his attention, she tells Tom in one scene, it’s as though the sun is shining on you. She knows how dark it could be in the shadows; she sympathizes with Tom’s hurt.

Throughout these scenes Minghella begins showing us subtle moments of more sinister feelings. Tom is not just enamored of Dickie’s affectations and accessories—he is obsessed with them, examining and studying and practicing the way Dickie exists in his own world. In one scene, he watches from the balcony of Dickie’s room as Dickie and Marge discuss him, and practices their overheard conversation in the mirror while he tries on Dickie’s rings and watches; in another, a scene that appears in every version of Ripley but with slight variations each time, Tom dresses up in Dickie’s clothes and pantomimes a scene that is part fantasy, part wish fulfillment. When Highsmith wrote it, Tom pretends to be Dickie in the act of murdering Marge for coming between the two of them; in Tom’s fantasy, it is Dickie who is the murderer, and the victim is not exactly his competition but his counterpart. In Minghella’s version, Tom is dressed up in Dickie’s fanciest suit, dancing and singing for the mirror in a way no one is meant to see. When Dickie catches him the disgust he feels is all over his face, settling into the curl of his upper lip: “I wish you’d get out of my clothes,” he says at the prospect of their sharing an outfit.

“You’ve drunk the drink, and the taste that’s left in your mouth is what you go with,” is how Minghella described adapting a novel to Rich. But he worried about some of his decisions, telling Rich that before the film was released journalists questioned whether it would be yet another example of a movie that makes queerness a villainous pathology. In the moment and two decades later, it remains a fair question. Minghella expanded a relatively minor character from the book, Peter Smith-Kingsley (played by Jack Davenport), to make him into a love interest for Tom—everyone can tell, from the moment they make eye contact, that this affair is not going to end well for either of them, though we already know Tom makes it out alive. “I’m desperate that no one infer a connection between [Ripley’s] actions in the film and his sexuality,” Minghella said. “But it’s a sorry state of affairs if you can only write about a homosexual character who behaves well. … It seems to me so much the fabric of the story—not so much that Tom was gay but that he was in love with Dickie and with Dickie’s life.”

Dickie is not given much of a neutral stance. In Minghella’s version, it is Dickie who is technically a murderer first. Minghella introduced a character named Silvana, a local woman having an affair with Dickie, the bad brunette to Paltrow’s bright blond. When Dickie brushes off her attempts to talk, Silvana kills herself. She was engaged to another man and pregnant with, it’s assumed, Dickie’s child. In a strange addition to the screenplay, Tom offers to take the blame, pretending it is out of a misguided desire to do right by Dickie but really in order to make Tom an indispensable and immovable part of Dickie’s interior life. Tom is always looking for an illicit bond between them, perhaps to distract from the one that’s already there—better brothers than lovers, better thieves than killers, this version sees Tom trying to make his perversions as chaste as they can get.

Highsmith’s intentions seem most present in the moment Tom murders Dickie, even if the act itself is so different in its execution. The scene haunts with its brutal, blunt violence, which shocks even if it doesn’t come as a surprise—but it’s the shot after the murder, of Tom quietly lying in Dickie’s dead arms, that unnerves and disturbs most. This is the moment in which Minghella’s liberties with the text become dangerous; how are we supposed to feel about Tom now? On the other hand, like most of Highsmith’s writing, the metaphor is no less subtle for being so obvious. In the book, it is Dickie who cautions Tom about being careful with other people. “You go out of your way not to hurt people who’re in love with you, you know,” he says.

The pull of looking good is what Minghella understands. It’s immensely pleasing to watch rich people who know how to spend their money right, and it is the tension between Dickie’s inherent grace at having money with Tom’s mannered attempts to use it that sets up our third act. When Freddie finds the apartment Tom has been renting as Dickie, he immediately clocks it as one that Tom has decorated himself, insulting his bourgeois choices. Tom kills him because Freddie knows what he’s done, but there’s a funnier reading here, too: that Tom kills him because he insulted his interior design.

Whatever effort made, we hurt the people we love. We love the people who hurt us. Why? Nobody answer that. Early in the book, the protagonist of The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether, thinks about how the best relationships are the unexamined ones, which is “perhaps exactly the reason why his heart always sank when the clouds of explanation gathered. His highest ingenuity was in keeping the sky of life clear of them. Whether or not he had a grand idea of the lucid, he held that nothing ever was in fact—for any one else—explained. One went through the vain motions, but it was mostly a waste of life. A personal relation was a relation only so long as people either perfectly understood, or better still, didn’t care if they didn’t.”

The desire to understand everything that makes a person compel our attention will ruin our capacity to experience it. This fact is often ignored in our endless conversations about what makes a protagonist different from a hero, and why we would want to watch people—be they con men, mob bosses, distant husbands, or terrible friends—do bad things. Asking why is a distraction from respecting charisma, an unexplainable phenomena that commands us to look regardless of morality, and often in direct defiance of it. Tom knows this about Dickie, and we know this about Tom. Highsmith knew this about us, and Minghella knew what we needed to see. Many of the most important scenes in Ripley are colored with natural light or its reflection. When Dickie and Tom take a small boat out, the sun high and bright, they squint at each other as much out of contempt as to protect their pupils. Nothing can be hidden under this kind of light, but that’s not the same as a clear view.

The impact of Tom Ripley, in style and character, has recently become a little more present. Showtime announced the development of a Ripley television show to be released in 2020, starring Andrew Scott, who’s best known as the so-called Hot Priest in Fleabag; he’s an actor who clearly understands how a man can be both seductive and chaste. In real life, however, the resurgence of Ripley is most surprising when it is most obvious. In February 2019, The New Yorker published a long profile of the author and literary agent Dan Mallory, a man who wrote a commercially successful novel about assumed identities and suspicious neighbors; good-looking, charismatic, manipulative, and totally fraudulent, it seems he could not resist the most on-the-nose deceptions. One of his most frequent lies was to say he had received a doctorate from Oxford, studying Patricia Highsmith and The Talented Mr. Ripley. He apparently said that he found Damon’s performance “graceless,” though when his colleagues started saying he had his own “Talented Mr. Ripley thing” going on, I wonder whether he found it a flattering comparison.

Other people have also captured our imaginations in their scams, which seemed to mostly revolve around proximity to people with more money and presumably better taste. The split ends of Elizabeth Holmes, the sweatpants preferred by Anna Delvey—all of these were seen, in retrospect, as tells that should have revealed they were posing in places they didn’t belong. Despite some of what makes these scammers so funny or captivating, I am often left cold by their purported crimes. I still look for a certain level of elegance in their manner and marks. Most of our contemporary scammers lack the glamour of a Highsmith antihero. Today’s identity thefts take place on small screens and at bad parties. Maybe future generations will find that to be as charming as forging signatures or steaming stolen suits. Perhaps it is because they lack the ability to keep a secret. Most of them are brought down not by their compulsion to lie, but to tell on themselves.

Then again, in this way they are somewhat like Highsmith. When asked about her personal life, Highsmith liked to say that she didn’t answer questions about herself or other people, though Schenkar notes that, like Ripley, she ratted herself out every chance she got. Her characters, like their author, have a tell. Most people are best understood when their speech is taken as its exact opposite. Everything they use to hide only shows their weaknesses, a translucent display of the barely subconscious.

Minghella was also the producer of one of the most enduringly popular stagings of Madama Butterfly, on view at the Metropolitan in New York in April. It is a notably ornate and traditional adaptation—not contemporary for being made minimal, but modern for committing to its heritage. Secrets, lies, and weapons go together like hats on cruise ships, jackets for dinner, dressing gowns for morning espresso, and not knowing whether the person you love is your next partner or your next victim. “I always thought it was better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody,” Tom chokes out toward the end of the film, a line that doesn’t appear in any other version yet fits his performance like a glove. In the book, we leave Tom asking for what we know he’ll always be in search of. A cab driver asks him what hotel he wants to be taken to, and he replies in Italian: Il meglio, il meglio! The best, Tom wants. The best, Tom will get.

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