Ripley’s Game (2002)


The mysterious, darkly humorous and tough-minded Modernist novelist, Patricia Highsmith, wrote some novels movie makers have adapted most successfully, most notably Strangers on a Train. Besides that novel which Hitchcock made into a movie marvel, she wrote four novels about the sociopath Tom Ripley, known as the Ripliad, two of which were made into four movies: Purple Noon (1960), The American Friend (1977), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Ripley’s Game (2002).

All the Ripley movies are estimable, especially Purple Noon and Ripley’s Game.

Ripley’s Game, not given a theater release in the US, is easily the best and certainly the most interesting. The wonderful Italian director and screenplay writer, Liliana Cavari, together with the contemporary Italian composer, Ennio Morricone, and of course Highsmith herself, in the inevitably disjointed collective creation of a movie from a novel, have somehow together given us the character of the sociopathic aesthete. (“Somehow” acknowledges the magical but perhaps ever mysterious–inscrutable?–act of creating art, especially joint creation.) This is not the usual Tom Ripley.

Let us refer to the creators of Ripley’s Game as HMC. We’ll await finer distinctions about parceling out creative credit from a special commission of storytelling geniuses in Elysium; I’m sure a group is already hard at work.

So: Tom Ripley, an irresistible bad seed love child, has been born four times in movies, and though we are entertained by Alain Delon and Matt Damon as Tom, we face the tough guy aesthete only with John Malkovich’s Tom in Ripley’s Game.

The sociopathic aesthete is a protagonist with whom to reckon. He or she brings along a certain circumscribed aesthetic and a philosophy of life that once was called pagan, later Nietzschean, and now might be called primatological. The sociopathic aesthete is, of course, a killer. Moreover, the prototypical sociopathic aesthete is instinctively and highly sexual, often bisexual, which lends advantages, for instance, in reading people. But most characteristically, the sociopathic aesthete loves a certain form of artistic beauty: the mighty line. It is the mighty line in literature, painting, music, and the other arts. That line, arguably the apex of artistic transcendence, an immediate bright flight to a refuge of beauty, the purest if always momentary joy, is immensely preferable for tough aesthetes who want no extended interpretation, no analytical talk, no accounting for the context of the creation at hand, no slow appreciation. In short, no messing around. They want exalting euphony in the moment.

We may start exemplifying with literature:

When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d–Whitman

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day–Shakespeare

And after many a summer dies the swan–Tennyson

Not to simplify the sociopathic aesthete: After all and finally, essentially what more does Finnegan’s Wake say than does Tennyson’s peerless sentence? Perhaps the sociopathic aesthete would say, I have my imagination and it suffices; you’ve wasted decades, Joyce. I like my brief bright sense of History, large and small, collective and personal, far better. I like my line. You’re simply an unwelcome intruder and a compulsive and authoritarian Scribbler-Controller.

Says Tom Ripley: I’ll take glorious quick and sublime journeys, suspense propelling you to the resolution at the end of the flight. Tennyson’s swan, unseen until its late identity answers surging curiosity, glides away from the other two beauties, that Door-Yard bloomed in during (presumably) a lovely summer’s day.

To sharpen the idea a bit: The sociopathic aesthete, I am sure, would relish the second of the following lines:

A belief in violence is the specific heresy of the twentieth century.–Gladys Schmitt

The specific heresy of the twentieth century is a belief in violence.–Tom Ripley

The specific heresy of the twentieth century is…what?…tell me!… I’m waiting! I like to wait!

Yes, Ripley’s suspenseful line is mightier.

And so in Ripley’s Game, an art appreciator traces the limb of a lovely woman in a Renaissance painting with his index finger and notes the beauty approvingly. Shortly after that, Ripley, the sociopathic aesthete, and who agrees with the appreciator, kills the appreciator’s bodyguard and takes money from the appreciator by force. Clearly, Ripley is angry because the appreciator tried to devalue the cost (if not the beauty) of the art.

So: there are two stories playing out in Ripley’s Game. The first is that of the tough guy aesthete, the story of how Ripley, who lives with a severe fortress mentality in an artful and huge Italian villa in Veneto, a villa which in its sheltering of superb Renaissance art reminds a little of another metaphorical Grand Refuge of Art, the Hermitage in the great movie, Russian Ark, obtains a classic harpsichord for his beautiful young wife, Luisa, a keyboard prodigy, and comes on an evening to the classic Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, a Renaissance archetectural masterpiece built in 1580-85, where he listens to beautiful young Luisa, the harpsichord soloist alone on the venerable classic stage and after looking up at tough aesthete Tom, who is not deigning to sit among the audience in the seats but to play the Outsider, this sociopath, and stand above the audience and lean against a column in the columned portico, plays (does Luisa) the following opening notes, a beautiful engrossing musical line that builds from a most powerfully propelling single-note attack–your experience is of a beautiful, sweeping, impelled musical adventure–to a chordal resolution, in a piece for the harpsichord composed by Ennio Morricone, who wrote the score for Ripley’s Game. These final moments in the movie are the high point for Tom Ripley.

Here is the link, but tune out once you hear other instruments begin to play. The movie ends just before the purity of the harpischord notes dissolves into an orchestral piece.

To sharpen further a sense of Tom’s aesthetics, we should briefly look at another of the several other kinds of beauty to be discovered in art, kinds the tough guy aesthete won’t much credit. You might think of this counter aesthetic as that of the scholar and of artists and of dedicated appreciators. Here is a quick example. Nathanael West wrote a novel called Miss Lonelyhearts published in 1933. It has never had a large readership but it has become a classic to readers of serious literature. It is a complicated but beautifully wrought pessimistic allegory of Western culture: there is a literal level, an historical level and a mythical level; all three are playing in parallel throughout the narrative. Often, a single character and action in the present also represents and conjures parallel historical and mythical characters and actions. A major character is named William Shrike, and he is the Feature Editor of The New York Post Dispatch. (Reflect on that title.) His speech in the novel is dazzling, his rhetoric beautiful. No one can approach him here. He is also two other personages, one historical and the other mythical. All three Shrikes are like their namesake bird, at least in West’s view: they impale their protagonists or victims from the beginning and dramatize the agonies. Here is the essential description of Shrike:

Although his gestures were elaborate, his face was blank. He practiced a trick much used by moving-picture comedians–the dead pan. No matter how fantastic or excited his speech, he never changed his expression. Under the shining white globe of his brow, his features huddled together in a dead, gray triangle.

Note especially “shining white globe of his brow.” And “dead, gray triangle.”

The ubiquitous Droeshout engraving. After you read Ben Johnson’s admonition often presented under the engraving–“…Reader, looke/Not on his picture but his Booke”–you can see why trickster West provides a clue here too when West writes of William Shrike,  “No matter how fantastic or excited his speech, he never changed his expression.”

Note as well West’s play on words: “globe of his brow” and Globe Theater.

(There has been much West scholarship, and I’ve lost track of some of it over the past two or three decades; but I have seen no indication that West’s allegorical Bard has been recognized.)

As to Shrike’s third identity, the mythical one, West conveys it by Shrike’s apparition-like movements. All his movements–there are no exceptions–are in the nature of suddenly appearing in a scene–materializing–when you least expect him. He is forever catching your arm from behind. He uncannily darkens doorways. He looms in night shadows. He is, in short, the mythical Tempter. (The action in Miss Lonelyhearts makes it fitting that Shrike take that diabolical guise rather than, say, that of Mephistopheles.)

I suppose we might call such aesthetics something like “structural” or “allegorical.” Grand allegories are monuments of epochal preservation.

My claim that sociopathic aesthetes, at least imagined ones like Tom Ripley (and, apropos, his fictional cousin in Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines, creative architect careless of his talent in his domination by the primal psychology of the killer), seem not predisposed to appreciate the panoramic glories of grand allegories but the mighty lines which fit the moment of the show between their ears, derives from their typical loathing of human nature, their view of it as “…so wretched in the generality” (to borrow from Goethe): for them there is nothing sublime about farcical, disgusting human activity, activity everywhere in History, that should be memorialized by epochal preservation. That they are missing a treasure of the beautiful serves at least to bring to them in their awful conduct a “natural” justice, a satisfaction for some of us. Tom Ripley, holed up in his grand refuge of beauties of the Renaissance, has but a limited appreciation of them. He himself, no matter his surroundings, is far from the spirit of Villa I Tatti. Thinking here of Highsmith, and anticipating what that commission in Elysium is discovering about judiciously parceling out the fair amount of credit for Ripley’s Game to each of its collaborators, it seems right to credit Hightower for masterfully creating Ripley the sociopath living in his Grand Surround of Preserved Renaissance yet unaware of its largest significance because he is caught up in the Great Irrational Account of human conduct characterizing the Modernist movement–the murderous psychological complexes mocking the idea of inspired and enlightened civilization–and of which movement Hightower is a prominent member and the cynical Ripley an archetypal character.

As to that cynicism: The second story playing out in Ripley’s Game dramatizes what Tom Ripley, the sociopathic aesthete, thinks about life beyond his guarded Art Refuge in the classic villa. Perhaps his idea is sharply suggested by Hugh Trevor-Roper’s explicit claim that history is indeed largely a farce. Perhaps Tom reminds a bit of Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan in Hitchcock’s Rope, two murderers for whom (it might be said) not a traditional moral sense but a wish to commit a perfect murder essentially for the sake of it becomes a prevailing urge.

In its details I’ll leave Tom Ripley’s particular game, one played with homicidal intent and outcome but with no moral sense, no view of History and human life as in any way a didactic scenario, and certainly not inspiring of any compassion, to remain at rest in the movie until you bring it alive for yourself, should you be interested in doing so. Except for this: here again Highsmith makes a train a vehicle of evil doings. But in Ripley’s Game, the blood is spilled in scenes that are straight out of slapstick and screwball comedies, brought off with dead pan humor. Ripley’s game is essentially to preserve mighty lines in a walled-in Eden and occasionally foray into the world outside to prove that nothing is moral Out There, all is Farce.

He gets away with it. He is a cynical, amoral adventurer who comes in from the Farce to find moments of beauty. The highest action in Ripley’s Game takes place not after many a summer but during many a summer.

It has been said that the late Patricia Highsmith, a true talent, could be difficult. I imagine she was.