Sunlight As Shadow in ‘Purple Noon’

Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) is a confidence artist. We know this at least on a minor level because within the opening minutes of Purple Noon (Plein Soleil, or “Full Sun” in the original French) he admits his prowess at forgery. The art of forgery is a small subset of skills within the playbook of the confidence artist, so there is no reason to suspect him as a full-blown trickster. Plus, he appears to be on vacation with his friend; there’s no reason to think he’s up to no good.

It’s not long, however, before things turn in a different direction.

A little bit of historical (and anachronistic) knowledge helps explain why I, and I think many others, might be suspicious of Tom Ripley just moments into the film—excepting those, of course, familiar with Purple Noon‘s source material, the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. Delon, who was made a full-blown French celebrity due in large part to Purple Noon, would later go on to star in some of the nouvelle vague‘s most famous noirs, including Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), both cult classics in the cinephile world. The environment of noir is one of back-stabbing, double-crossing, and deception; looking back on Delon’s earlier films, it’s hard not to have the memory of his work in noir still linger.

As it turns out, though, despite the ravishing photography of the Italian coast that makes Purple Noon such a visual splendor, the film is a noir—and it isn’t. The key distinction in classifying this movie as a noir is the difference between the plot and character features of noir from its visual style. Ostensibly, a movie could look like a noir but not be one; and in the case of Purple Noon, a movie can have all the requisite plot and character features of a noir but not look like one. This is the very thing that author Geoffrey O’Brien misses in his otherwise excellent essay for this Criterion edition when he says:

Purple Noon is the very opposite of film noir. No murky labyrinths here: all is apparently open and bright, inviting every variety of self-indulgence. Each frame filled by Henri Decaë’s astonishing cinemaphotography is a place that begs to be entered and savored. The color values are almost too beautiful to be endured, especially since we sense that they are not only beautiful but accurate, no Hollywood fantasy.”

The success of Purple Noon is that underneath a beautiful film lies a film noir. Director René Clément, much like Delon’s Ripley, turns on the “full sun” of the title to obscure the things going on under the surface. Instead of the shadow-painted alleways of the noir, Clément films the confidence game of Ripley in its inverse: scalding daylight. Visually, Purple Noon may be an “anti-noir”, but in every other way it lives up to the noir genre’s tropes: it turns sunlight into shadow, the obvious into the unknown. In fact, O’Brien’s essay provides evidence to this, even in his act of denying the film’s noir status: “This is a film that can hardly be watched without nagging waves of desire and envy—all the better to become complicit in the desires and envies of the murderous hero. By the end of the film, we do not simply understand Tom Ripley; we want what he wants.”

This is exactly what Ripley does to his friends Philippe (Maurice Ronet) and his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt). If he were to simply take the both of them to a back alley, decked out in a trenchcoat and a fedora, the game would be up: Ripley’s status as a confidence artist would be completely obvious. For Ripley, daylight provides the best protection; it assuages the potential concerns that Philippe might have—namely curiosity as to why his father would pay Ripley $5,000 for merely bringing him back to San Francisco—and envelops them in the warm security of an Italian vacation.

Clément’s direction and Decaë’s cinemaphotography do wonders for this movie; the scene is perfectly set. What makes or breaks the success of this manipulation of daylight is Delon’s performance, which is aces. Though Ripley’s motivations are clear once he has killed Philippe and stolen his identity, his goal is to remain as ambiguous and as natural as possible. If he is to pull of the con in broad daylight, he must remain as unassuming as possible. A single act of shadiness could send the entirety of his scam into complete chaos. If people begin to distrust the light, then Ripley becomes not the strikingly handsome man that he is, but a seedy criminal in need of capturing. Delon is splendid at doing this, and in many ways he is far more terrifying here than he is in his later works, precisely because of his skilled balance of seduction and deception. He’s a character that’s easy to root for, but one that’s not easy to commend.

Most of the time, Ripley is successful in his manipulation of light; when Phillipe’s American friend interrupts Tom as he is writing a forged break-up note to Marge, he fails to put any of the pieces in front of him together—proof of Tom’s ability to turn light into shadow. However, both Clément and Ripley recognize how precarious this mission is. There’s a tense scene where Ripley hands his passport, the one he forged after killing Philippe, to a government official. Upon examining the passport, the camera cuts to Tom’s eyes, then to the government official’s, then back to Tom’s each individually. This is not merely an “ocular patdown”—it is a clear indicator that it is not light or dark we must look to for trust, but rather our own point of view. It’s a scene that shows how tenuous Ripley remains in the balance in his confidence scheme.

Towards the end of the film, a woman remarks to her husband, “Audiences must be blind.” What she doesn’t realize is how true that is for her—and for everyone else in Purple Noon. Sunlight blinds just as much as it illuminates.

While this Criterion edition is a little more spartan on features than the label is usually known to be, this package is nonetheless excellent. A thick booklet containing O’Brien’s essay and an interview with Clément comes with the DVD, as well as several video interviews, including ones with Delon and author Highsmith.

RATING 8 / 10