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Delon's Midday Mayhem

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Lost at Sea: Marie Laforet takes an uncertain cruise with her wastrel husband and a cool killer in Rene Clement's "Purple Noon."

Icy Alain Delon chills the waters in 'Purple Noon'

By Richard von Busack

THE RE-RELEASE of French director Rene Clement's 1960 thriller Purple Noon is the cinematic equivalent of the tantalizing mystery paperback you want to have in your beach bag along with the sun block and a bottle of sparkling water. Purple Noon (the French title, Plein Soleil, means "fresh air") isn't deep, but it has a vivid, bracingly cold style that contrasts with the subtropical visuals.

A long part of the movie takes place on board a sailboat off the coast of Italy. The famous cinematographer Henri Decae shoots the harsh sunlight, turquoise skies and near-ultraviolet blue waves as a contrast to the perspiring bronze hides of the three lounging leads, as well as to highlight star Alain Delon's fearsome white teeth. In those days, Delon was, along with Terence Stamp, the embodiment of a certain type of too-handsome androgynous beauty, meant to stir the women and make the men's flesh creep. In a scene that's still unsettling, Delon even makes a pass at the mirror.

Clement spells out what novelist Patricia Highsmith left between the lines in her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley; in 1960, an audience could still get a near-electric shock at the idea of bisexual villains. Highsmith's fiction depends somewhat on its reputation for perversity, for being infused with the love that dare not say its name. This quality slipped by the censors into Alfred Hitchcock's film of her best-known novel, Strangers on a Train. (Highsmith also wrote an untypically sticky lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, under a pseudonym in the 1950s.)

When you see Delon clad in a series of white summer suits, sunglasses and expensive loafers, you suspect he is the Thin White Duke that David Bowie wanted to grow up to be.

DELON PLAYS one of the mystery genre's grandest narcissists, the one and only (thank God) Tom Ripley, Highsmith's Eurohustler, a stylish, sponging, amoral murderer. Ripley, the jet-age version of Mack the Knife, also turned up in the guise of Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders' The American Friend.

Our antihero has hooked up with a pair of American pigeons: a wealthy young bit of boat trash named Phillippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) and his lovely, somewhat spoiled art-student girlfriend, Marge (Marie Laforet), who is toiling away at what looks like a highly unenlightening essay on Fra Angelico.

Ripley's relationship with Phillippe, whom he physically resembles, is left to the imagination. The script (by Clement and Paul Gegauff) suggests that the two may have been chums, or more, in San Francisco. Ripley has been sent out by Phillippe's father to fetch the young wastrel back to the States, but after some time in his company, and especially after being the butt of a nasty practical joke by Phillippe, Ripley conspires to get his hands on Phillippe's money, his boat and his girlfriend.

Purple Noon is a fetchingly amoral, urbanely malevolent film, and Delon's basking cobra makes a memorable villain. Delon and Clement take special delight in parodying the way in which thrillers make us identify with murderers by showing how killing nauseates them. Instead, Ripley tears into a sandwich like a starving man after having just dispatched one of the people foolish enough to stand in his way.

The decadent atmosphere is never as pleasing as when Ripley strolls through the fish market in Naples, one cold fish looking over the others. Clement's camera gives us close-ups of the almost-human faces of the skates, and the severed head of a dead fish is a clever visual reminder of how Ripley stands to lose his own head if his treachery is discovered.

Unfortunately, the movie turns ethical in the end. I've yet to read a book on the censorship of French movies, but apparently such a system was in place, which may account for the seemingly tacked-on triumphs of morality in such thrillers as Purple Noon and Diabolique. Still, one can always leave the theater two minutes early, pretending that Ripley spends a restful life contemplating the curaçao-blue sea, riding sailboats full of the sort of sick, wealthy gamesters that our fiction assures us cruise the Mediterranean looking for kicks.


Purple Noon (PG-13; 118 min.), directed by Rene Clement, written by Clement and Paul Gegauff, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, photographed by Henri Decae and starring Alain Delon, Marie Laforet and Maurice Ronet.

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From the July 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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