Patricia Highsmith wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley in in 1955. She based it loosely on Henry James’s The Ambassadors (which I now have to add to my to-read list). The lead character, Tom Ripley, proved so popular, that she brought him back for four more novels.
When the reader first meets Tom he is living close to the bone in New York City, subsisting on his “friends,” or running various schemes, including mail fraud. But Tom isn’t really great at his schemes, and he doesn’t like people, and he doesn’t have any true friends, just people he can sponge on. Tom’s prospects begin to look up when he runs into the rich Mr. Greenleaf, the father of an acquaintance, Dickie Greenleaf. Mr. Greenleaf wants his son, who he believes is frittering away his life in Italy by dabbling in painting, to come home, get serious, and work at the family shipping business. Tom exaggerates his friendship with Dickie, and agrees to track him down in the (fictional) Italian seaside port of Mongibello – staked with cash from Mr. Greenleaf.
Tom doesn’t seem to have any real desire to fulfill his quest and bring home the prodigal son, but he does head to Mongibello and soon meets Dickie and his friend Marge Sherwood. Marge and Tom take an immediate dislike to each other as Tom tries to ingratiate himself with the open and (initially) clueless Dickie. Tom’s motives aren’t clear, to himself or the reader. His strongest motivating factor seems to be survival and acquiring money. He comes from nothing and is determined to not only be able to live, but live well. Dickie enjoys palling around with Tom at first, as a way to avoid Marge’s not-so-subtle attempts to take their relationship to the next level. In the meantime, Tom has been studying Dickie, to the point of copying his mannerisms and attire. One day Dickie walks into his bedroom to find Tom in his clothes – it is from that moment that their newfound friendship begins to sour. Dickie may not be the brightest bulb on the tree, but he can sense that Tom is not the real deal, not from his side of the tracks.
There is definitely an undercurrent of sexuality to Tom’s obsession with Dickie, which was made more blatant in the 1999 film version, directed by Anthony Minghella, starring Matt Damon (Tom), Jude Law (Dickie), and Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge). I had seen the film years ago and didn’t love it. I will say that Jude Law has never looked better on film. It’s a first-class production, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cate Blanchett, and Jack Davenport in supporting roles. I just didn’t find Damon to be very compelling. Ripley may be a cipher, but I felt Damon just played him as a blank space. I rewatched it recently, and it’s better than I remember, but Damon is definitely still its weakest link. There is also apparently a French version of the story, Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), filmed in 1960, directed by René Clément and starring Alain Delon that might be fun to track down sometime.
But back to the book . . . even though Tom bristles at memories of being called a “sissie” and is repulsed by Marge, he seems less attracted to Dickie the man than to Dickie’s lifestyle and all its trappings. Tom is first and foremost a parasite. His love of fine clothes and having money to spend will lead to murder and mayhem as he travels across Italy to escape his past and past identity. Tom Ripley is an anti-hero and sociopath who at times may put off the reader, who may find many of his crimes brutal and unnecessary, but Highsmith is such a gifted writer that she effortlessly pulls us into his thoughts and his fears. Will he avoid capture? Do we want him to? I can’t say I liked Tom Ripley much, but I am looking forward to checking out his further adventures.
p.s. Fleabag’s “Hot Priest” Andrew Scott will be portraying Tom Ripley in a new series, Ripley, on Showtime in 2020. So I have to start subscribing to that channel now?