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The Talented Mr. Malkovich

John Malkovich is the actor who finally gets Tom Ripley right.

In the introduction to Home Movies I noted that, given the ascendance of video rental over theater attendance, movies are generally reviewed months before most people will see them. One exception, of course, is movies that aren't reviewed at all, having never been released theatrically. Ripley's Game, which Fine Line Features has put out on video after declining to distribute it to theaters, has not quite suffered this fate: A minor cause célèbre, it has gotten some attention in the press, and even enjoyed a three-night, sold out run in New York earlier this year. Still, as a result of Fine Line's reticence it has received vastly less publicity than say, Jersey Girl. This is a shame, because while it's not the masterpiece some of its defenders claim, it is a worthy film, and one in which John Malkovich offers the best portrayal to date of one of twentieth century literature's most compelling villains.

The villain in question is Tom Ripley, the most famous creation of late novelist Patricia Highsmith. The original cultured, cultivated American Psycho, Ripley calmly slaughtered his way through the world's imperfections long before Thomas Harris and Brett Easton Ellis began dreaming their respective nightmares. Highsmith introduced a 25-year-old Ripley in her 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. A small-time hustler in New York, he accepts a commission from the parents of a wealthy acquaintance to travel to Italy and persuade their ne'er-do-well son to return home. Ripley instead kills him and assumes his identity long enough to develop a decided taste for the finer things--nice clothes, nice food, nice accommodations. Over the course of four subsequent novels, Ripley, having set himself up with a lovely French villa and lovely French wife, is on occasion forced to kill those who threaten the new life he has made for himself. ("Tom detested murder," Highsmith writes in Ripley's Game, "unless it was absolutely necessary.") Apart from his penchant for homicide, Ripley is that most American of types: the imposter, the wannabe, the self-inventing man. He's the dark twin of charming pretenders such as Catch Me If You Can's Frank Abignale. As such, he is also a kind of New-World madness preying on innocent Old Europe, where people know what they are and stay that way. (Strivers who sail in the opposite direction, toward the fluidity of America, tend to be better appreciated. One such, the impoverished American immigrant Archibald Leach, could have been channeling Ripley when he described his transformation into Cary Grant: "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be, and, finally, I became that person. Or he became me.")

Malkovich is the fourth of a varied group of actors to assay the role of Ripley, following in the footsteps of Alain Delon (Purple Noon, 1960), Dennis Hopper (The American Friend, 1977), and Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999). The first of these, Delon, might have seemed perfect casting for the young Ripley (Purple Noon is adapted from the first novel), all beautiful surface and hidden intent. But, at 25, Delon was not yet able to hint that dark longings lurked behind his gorgeous features; as a result, the internal life of his Ripley seems not merely obscure but nonexistent, the killer-as-fashion-model. His looks, too, render dubious the desperate envy that defines the young Ripley. Yes, yes, he wants the money of Dickie Greenleaf (or as the movie transliterates his name, "Phil"), played by Maurice Ronet. But is it really possible to believe that Delon would want to be Ronet?

If the first attempt at The Talented Mr. Ripley fails to convey the motivations that drive its protagonist, the second, Anthony Minghella's 1999 eponymous adaptation, makes them altogether too explicit. Damon's Ripley is needy, insecure, and covetous, desperately in love with his Dickie (Jude Law this time) and in constant terror that he will be found out and rejected. This characterization has been widely criticized by Highsmith afficionados, but in fact it is not that far removed from the author's conception. While the older Ripley of subsequent novels does become a villain of almost Mephistophelian assurance, this first Ripley, the one still discovering what he is capable of, is plagued by Dostoevskian self-doubt. ("He stared at Dickie's blue eyes that were still frowning," Highsmith writes at one point, "It was as if Dickie had suddenly been snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn't know each other. ... For an instant the shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear. He felt in the grip of a fit, as if he would fall to the ground.") Similarly, while Minghella was chided for bringing the story's homoerotic subtext to the surface, it was no less explicit in Highsmith's original. (In the book, unlike the movie, Dickie and Marge repeatedly insinuate that Ripley is gay.) The weakness of Damon's (and Minghella's) Ripley is not its portrayal of neediness, but the failure to show how that neediness could lead to an existential decision to commit murder. In the film, Dickie's killing is an impulsive act of passion, rather than a calculated act of hate. And while this may humanize the character, it also separates him from Highsmith's original, skipping over the point at which his needs became merely wants and explaining away the void that is central to Tom Ripley.

Just as The Talented Mr. Ripley has been twice adapted to the big screen, so too has the third novel in Highsmith's series, Ripley's Game. (The second novel, Ripley Under Ground, will get its turn later this year as White on White, starring Barry Pepper as Ripley.) Ripley, now comfortably ensconced in his villa, is insulted (the details vary between the book and the films) by a local picture framer named Jonathan Trevanny, who is terminally ill. When Reeves Minot, a past associate from the Hamburg underworld, asks Ripley to find an "innocent" to assassinate one of his rivals, Ripley offers Trevanny. Reeves and Ripley carefully maneuver the picture framer into accepting his deadly commission by playing on his illness and his fear of leaving his family destitute. But the first murder leads to others, and ultimately Ripley must intervene to save Trevanny.

The first film version of the story, Wim Wenders's The American Friend, is the most thoughtful of all the Ripley films and features an exceptional performance by Bruno Ganz as Trevanny (here "Zimmerman"), the innocent-turned-assassin. But the casting of Dennis Hopper as Ripley is disastrous. To a more explicit degree than in the books or other films, the Ripley of The American Friend is stand-in for America itself, its encroaching crassness but also its liberating energy. Hopper's Ripley, however, is a parody of Americanness, a cowboy-hatted clown who audaciously promises to "bring the Beatles back to Hamburg." ("What's wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?" Hopper asks in the film's first scene; one suspects that Highsmith, a native of Texas, might have had an answer.) Failing to find the thread of the character, Hopper instead does what he always does: He plays Hopper, the psycho hipster. When he mumbles gibberish into a tape recorder--"There is nothing to fear except fear itself. I know less and less about who I am or who anyone else is"--it resembles nothing so much as a dry run for the Nike ads in which he would appear two decades later. It's an intermittently interesting performance, but it's not Ripley.

Which brings us to Malkovich. Like Hopper, he is one of Hollywood's resident weirdos, an actor who can be counted on to bring a trademarked oddity, an expectable darkness, to virtually any role he inhabits. But where Hopper is defined by mania and excess--the artist as free spirit--Malkovich brings extremes of discipline and restraint--the artist as control freak. Little wonder, then, that he offers easily the most evocative Ripley to date. Cool, exacting, murderous when (but only when) need be, and surprisingly domestic at other times (one scene finds him sewing in bed), Malkovich imbues Ripley's Game with an air of casual but controlled malice. The bored nonchalance with which he threatens an associate ("Do you want to tell me what you want, or do you want some truffling pig to find you dead somewhere in a month or two?") or prepares his person for a bit of wet work ("Wait, keep my watch. 'Cause if it breaks I'll kill everyone on this train.") is itself worth the price of the rental. Malkovich, alone among the actors who've played Ripley, seems to understand that the appropriate question is not why he kills people, but why not? God is dead; all is permitted. "I don't worry about being caught," he tells Trevanny at one point, "because I don't believe anyone is watching." (The contrast with Hopper, an actor who seems always to feel the eye of God upon him, could hardly be more striking.) His subsequent words recall Orson Wells's ferris-wheel disquisition on the disposability of human life in The Third Man. "The world is not a poorer place because those people are dead," Malkovich explains. "It's one less car on the road."

The film, sadly, is not as good as the performance. Ripley's Game is the story of two men, and just as Hopper let down Ganz in The American Friend, so is Malkovich ill-served by his Trevanny. The sickly picture framer and reluctant killer is played by Scottish actor Dougray Scott, who looks as though he still hasn't gotten over his decision to forego playing Wolverine in order to be the villain in MI:2. (Oops.) Whereas Malkovich's performance is delightfully understated, Scott's is woefully broad, his moral anguish indistinguishable from his medical discomfort. Thanks to this unbalanced pairing, the movie lags considerably when Malkovich is offscreen, principally during its first half. But just shy of the one-hour mark a door is opened and Malkovich, unexpectedly, is behind it. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tom Ripley.

The Home Movies List:
Ripley's Relations

Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs). Like Ripley, the subject of four films (and counting). Unlike Ripley, he kills not only for practical ends but for artistic (and gastronomic) ones as well. Those familiar only with the Anthony Hopkins version--from Lambs, its adequate prequel Red Dragon and atrocious sequel Hannibal--should seek out 1986's Manhunter, for a more restrained portrayal by Brian Cox, a wonderful actor only now attaining stardom.

Patrick Bateman (American Psycho). The novel, by Brett Easton Ellis, was wretched, a plea for notoriety from an author already fading from view. The film, an attempt to rescue the book "from its own bad reputation" in the words of director Mary Harron, takes out much of the sleaze and ultraviolence, leaving not much beyond strained social commentary.

Paul (Last Tango in Paris). Another American ex-pat seeking to shed his identity in France. Happily, his emotional outlets are non-lethal (except to himself). More happily still, he is played by Marlon Brando in one of the most remarkable performances of his remarkable career..

Uncle Charlie (Shadow of a Doubt). Though Hitchcock made a film of Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, he never had a go at Ripley. If he had, whom would he have cast? Certainly not twitchy Tony Perkins, whose killings were so sad and purposeless. No, I imagine either Joseph Cotton, the all-American strangler of the underrated Shadow of a Doubt or ...

Johnnie Aysgarth (Suspicion). Another Hitchcock ladykiller (or almost), this time played by Cary Grant. The studio changed the ending to preserve Grant's innocence (and box office appeal), but here he portrayed most explicitly the cruelty underlying his charm that he only hinted at elsewhere (Notorious, North by Northwest, etc.). Alas, Ripley came along too late for Grant, the real-life transatlantic impersonator, to have a stab at him.

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