Long before Matt Damon and Jude Law drenched their golden locks in the sun of southern Italy in the late Anthony Minghella’s superb The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), René Clément – who can be placed at the forefront of the French New Wave – tackled Patricia Highsmith’s famous novel with the elegant Plein Soleil (1960). From the off, we’re provided with little prologue and thrown into the heady delights of Rome, where best buddies Tom Ripley (the blue-eyed Alain Delon, for whom this was his breakthrough film before going on to work with Antonioni) and Phillip Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) gallivant around the city picking up floozies.
Before long, their friendship sours and Tom, spurned by Phillip’s affections, grows envious of his friend’s wealth. This culminates in a plot by Tom to kill and assume the identity of his affluent former amie. Whilst Clément was the first to adapt Highsmith’s inaugural novel examining the career of the amoral Ripley, he was by no means the last or the most successful, even if he did receive the author’s praise. Whilst Plein Soleil remains alluring to the eye, it now feels more like a period piece, despite the fact that it would have been contemporary during the 1960s. There are also awkward choices made by the director, in particular retaining some character names and altering others (Dickie Greenleaf for Phillip).
Despite these flaws, there’s still a great deal to be enjoyed here. Delon offers up a sinister charm, capturing the sense of envy Tom feels towards Phillip, whilst Ronet gives us the petulant snob, correcting Tom repeatedly as he grows bored of his working-class pet’s companionship. Whilst both central leads turn in tremendous performances, it’s impossible to ignore the angelic quality of Marie Laforet, who plays Phillip’s love interest Marge. Her healthy, sun-soaked glow and glittering sapphire gaze steals every scene from her male counterparts, often topped off with explosive moments of raw emotion contrasting her cherubic appearance.
Key, well-loved scenes are executed with an incredibly unique style by Clément, including the infamous murder of Phillip on the boat and the consequent dispatching of Freddy Miles (Billy Kearns). The camerawork, supplied by Henri Decaë, not only captures the heat of Italy in high summer, but is also the central reason Clément’s film will endure, even if the thriller plot will ultimately seem clumsy to modern eyes. The visual appeal aside, Plein Soleil’s central draw will always be the psychologically fascinating Ripley. Jealous, fragile, and manipulative, he’s the wannabe sophisticate which Delon’s boyish charm encapsulates with aplomb.
Win a copy of Plein Soleil on Blu-ray with our latest competition. Follow this link to enter.