Cult Column: Plein Soleil (1960)

If you were an avid reader of Mr. Porter’s style journal, you’d be hard-pressed to come across a piece on summer dressing that fails to include reference stills of Alain Delon from Plein Soleil (1960); also known by its English title of Purple Noon. Those Oxford shirts, those espadrilles, those swim-shorts: the film, without meaning to, sets the benchmark for elegant men’s fashion and is as relevant today as it was when made. Everything about the film oozes style and good taste. Italy —with its numerous piazzas and cafés and open Tmarkets—comes alive onscreen, providing the ideal setting for the smoke and mirrors saga. The actors assay their roles with a nonchalant ease, and the story-telling is crisp and graceful. All in all, Plein Soleil has much to be proud of, much that has ensured its continued appeal.

The film is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and revolves around Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), a conman, and his quest to be transformed into Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), a wealthy American playboy. Philippe’s father hires Tom to persuade his son to return home to the States; success would mean a payment of five thousand dollars. However, on reaching Italy, Tom has other ideas. What if he were to kill Philippe, assume his identity and withdraw all the money? Why bother with a mere five thousand dollars when a large, lump fortune is up for grabs?

With this in mind, Ripley shrewdly calculates his moves. First, on a boat trip to Taormina, he seeds discord between Philippe and his girlfriend, Marge (Marie Laforêt), causing her to storm off. Then, with Marge safely onshore, he stabs Philippe, throwing his body into the sea. What follows is an ingenious attempt to cover his tracks whilst doing all he can to siphon off Philippe’s money. He even goes to the extent of winning over Marge for himself. Alain Delon’s portrayal of the antihero is nothing short of excellent; subtle yet powerful, cold yet charming – so much so that the phrase ‘killer blue eyes’ seems to have been coined with Delon in mind.

Going beyond performances, Plein Soleil embraces the paired-back principle that seems to define most European films and film-makers. Like Hemingway stripping out all but the essential in his prose, René Clément, the film’s director, prefers to let his audience connect the dots rather than spell out every minute detail visually. Greenleaf Snr, for instance, never makes an appearance and the backstory is only made evident via dialogue; Ripley’s fate is depicted very subtly at the end without the melodrama or the action sequence that typically fills such scenes, and, in many places, facial expressions have been chosen over extensive dialogue as the preferred tool of communication. Of course, the danger here is that the modern-day viewer, accustomed to instant gratification and beset by a myriad of distractions, might not have the patience or the inclination to warm to this format. This was probably why Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake of the novel opted for an opposing school of narration, more traditional and less open to interpretation.

At the end of the day, movies can always be re-created, but their grace and style and mystique can’t. Plein Soleil is a case in point. It is the sort of work that makes one misty-eyed and say wistfully ‘Oh, they don’t make them like that anymore!’.

Image: Josh Green

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