Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Apr 08, 2004 4:37 pm 
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Review published on CineScene
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DUGRAY SCOTT AND JOHN MALKOVICH IN RIPLEY'S GAME

The worst man wins

There have been many cinematic Highsmith stories, and even many filmed Tom Ripleys. Why another one? Well, as I am hardly the first to say – Ripley’s Game came out in England last summer, and had a brief theatrical showing in New York several months ago – there are ways in which John Malkovich was both born and bred to play the mature Mr. Ripley. Give the young one to Alain Delon or Matt Dillon: both were arguable versions of the fledgling scoundrel. But it’s uncanny how well Malkovich wears the skin of the grown man. And it’s cruelly weird that in America a film of this caliber could have been sent straight to DVD.

Life requires action, sometimes the slow patience of the lizard, other times the gift of abrupt violence. Ripley’s accomplished murders and thefts, so bold, so risky, so improvisational, prove that he possesses the existential courage one needs to survive and enjoy life. As his reward for jobs well done, Tom occupies an expansive Palladian villa in Treviso with a beautiful harpsichordist. He enjoys the best wines, the best cars, and the best risotto made from truffles in his kitchen by the best cook in the Veneto. He knows the difference between a Guercino and a Parmigianino and he’s never anything but well dressed. Markovich serves the role as well as it serves him: isn’t he, like Ripley, a brash American turned well-heeled European sybarite?

The paradox of the Ripley novels is that a master criminal may also be good at the art of living, and the tricky thing about watching Malkovich is that one may be tempted to admire him. This isn’t a new experience for the reader of Highsmith’s many novels, particularly the Ripley ones: to enter the world of her criminals has the appeal of being bad and getting away with it. As Graham Greene famously said, “[Highsmith] has created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.” And yet within the first ten minutes we see Ripley kill a man with a poker for little more than mishandling some renaissance drawings.

The perfect foil for Ripley in the movie is Trevanny (Dugray Scott), a man whom fatal illness has given an edge of desperate bravado, but who remains sensitive to moral values. Eventually after being lured into committing a serious crime for big money (which he can leave to his wife and young son), Trevanny waits with Ripley in the villa for some gangsters bent on revenge and as they chat to pass the time he remarks that in school he always got caught.

Tom smiles and says, “You know why? Because you didn’t think of just killing your teachers!”

John Malkovich hasn’t very often played a nice person. Yes, he’s been Biff in Death of a Salesman and Tom in The Glass Menagerie, but then we get to Lennie in Of Mice and Men and (triumphantly) Valmont in Dangerous Acquaintances andGilbert Osmond in Portrait of a Lady. In between he has been an out and out villain as in In the Line of Fire, or supercilious prigs like Port in The Sheltering Sky and Jake in The Object of Beauty. Tom Ripley is Malkovich’s triumph. It combines all of these. Is it a surprise that playing the wickedest man of all, he has never been more appealing? Finally all his slimy traits here come together. This is what he’s about, we say. At last it all makes sense. Being Ripley has never been more fun and that’s because the role fits the actor like a glove. There’s something sublimely ugly about him that reminds us that good looks are not the only attractive features in a man. There is also power, taste, and originality. He’s elegant, he’s an esthete, and he’s smart. When Reeves asks him if he has the extra fifty thousand he’s offering, he just snaps his cell phone shut. The ruthless man is also impatient with stupidity.

This is an actor’s film. Ray Winstone is superb in the smaller role of the abominable, self satisfied lowlife Reeves who comes to Ripley to get a murder done. Reeves is little more than a pretext for a caper, a reason for coming out of retirement, but Winstone makes him forward without ever being overdrawn. Dugray Scott is Trevanny, the picture framer in the Italian town near which Ripley lives who has acute myelogenous leukemia. Scott is an actor who looks both handsome and unwell. He may suffer a little too much, but he also has an admirable recessiveness that keeps the glamour Caviani spreads over her characters (they’re all a bit too well dressed, but this film comes out of Italy, the land of bella figura) from overwhelming his essential weakness. He also illustrates the strength that comes to desperate men. He gets just as mean as Ripley toward the end, and he dies with a smile on his face.

This film shows us the two essential elements of Patricia Highmith’s books: Tom Ripley is pure evil; and it’s a lot of fun to be him. Caviani’s suave Game gives the Devil his due. People unfamiliar with the Highsmithian sensibility may find the end unsatisfying. But it is perfectly in character.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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