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One of the more unorthodox "heroes" of mystery fiction from the past century, Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley carved a deadly niche through Europe in a string of novels which found him insinuating his way into high society, terrorizing his socially-inappropriate neighbors, and even "adopting" a son. Best known in the film community as the author of Strangers on a Train (1951), Highsmith published The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955, introducing a sociopathic cipher whose first-person narrative takes him from the assigned retrieval of a wayward son of privilege, Dickie Greenleaf, to a pair of brutal murders and Ripley's attempts to deceive Dickie's girlfriend, Marge. As Ripley begins to impersonate a life of wealth and largesse, he also finds paranoia part of the package as well.
A film adaptation of the novel was quick to follow in 1960 from France, courtesy of Ren Clment's Plein Soleil (released in the U.S. as Purple Noon), with a perfectly-cast Alain Delon as Ripley and the slippery, unresolved sexual tensions between the characters carried over faithfully from the book. However, a more socially-acceptable ending finds Ripley meeting traditional justice courtesy of a final Hitchcockian twist.
Astonishingly, it took 39 years for an English-speaking filmmaker to finally take a crack at the Ripley character (with only one other adaptation in the interim, Wim Wenders' The American Friend ), this time under the care of director/playwright Anthony Minghella, fresh off the success of The English Patient . This time Matt Damon essays the title role, bringing more of a vulnerable, physically awkward, and sexually insecure take on the character, with Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow offering appropriately glamorous, pampered characterizations of Dickie and Marge. This version also concocts two major additional characters, chatty heiress Meredith Logue (Babel's  Cate Blanchett) and openly gay love interest Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport, shortly before his lead role on the hit BBC show Coupling), an insignificant name from the novel expanded into a pivotal player. Both characters prominently figure in an alternate third act for the story, which finds Ripley in the tortured position of choosing his options between love, murder and imprisonment; oddly enough, both film versions add sexual relationships for Ripley (though of differing genders), while the literary character's desires remain far murkier.
The 1999 film came at the height of prominence for independent giant Miramax, which had become the property of Buena Vista (Walt Disney's entertainment company). The $40 million production became a co-production arrangement with domestic distributor Paramount, who owned the rights to the novel and had initiated the project with Minghella originally tapped to only write the screenplay. The finished product retains a strong Miramax pedigree thanks to the presence of its biggest Oscar®-winning talents-Minghella (The English Patient), Damon (Good Will Hunting ), and Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love ); further art house and critic-friendly credentials were provided by Blanchett (following her acclaimed Elizabeth ) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Dickie's nosy friend, Freddie) from Boogie Nights  and Happiness . The talent behind the camera was no less impressive, including frequent Minghella collaborators like seasoned editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, 1979), Australian cinematographer John Seale (Dead Poets Society ), and composer Gabriel Yared (Betty Blue ), all of whom reunited with Minghella and Law for Cold Mountain .
Involvement of this caliber along with the lustrous Italian locations signaled another feather in the Miramax cap, though the premise with its elements of homicide, homosexuality, and the disaffected rich caused some concern before awards season. Damon was candid about the pitfalls of his character in an Entertainment Weekly interview, remarking, "From the moment the decision was made to make this movie we knew this time was going to come. If it's phrased in a really reductive way a 'fag serial killer' then Ripley can't be the audience. He's one of them... But everyone's felt like an outsider before... I have hundreds of episodes from high school I'd love to replay but a lot cooler. I was short like 5 foot 2 until my junior year, so my sophomore year was terrifying."
The Talented Mr. Ripley opened in theaters on Christmas Day, 1999, and received largely positive reviews, though many audiences were vocally unprepared for the subject matter; nervous giggles were commonplace during many of the Damon/Law scenes. However, audiences soon became receptive and helped it become a strong commercial success, while reviewers were largely positive (with a dissenting Cineaste dismissing it for making the Ripley character too "palatable").
The film earned a respectable clutch of award nominations (including five Academy Awards nods, though it won none); the fact that it opened in the decade's strongest year of filmmaking (including such titles as American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, The Insider, The Matrix, The Straight Story and Being John Malkovich) certainly stalled the usual Miramax campaign juggernaut. However, the film's cultural ripples proved more far-reaching than expected; its sympathetic portrayal of Ripley made him one of Hollywood's first multi-faceted gay protagonists, and soon two more Ripley books became film properties, albeit with far less fortunate outcomes; Liliana Cavani's criminally-underrated Ripley's Game with John Malkovich (it was previously the source for The American Friend) barely opened in Europe in 2002 and went straight to video in America, while Roger Spottiswoode's Ripley Under Ground completed filming in 2005 but, despite a number of announced title changes, has yet to see the light of day.
Producer: Steven E. Andrews, Lydia Dean Pilcher, William Horberg, Sydney Pollack, Tom Sternberg, Paul Zaentz
Director: Anthony Minghella
Screenplay: Anthony Minghella, Patricia Highsmith (novel)
Cinematography: John Seale
Film Editing: Walter Murch
Art Direction: Stefano Ortolani
Music: Gabriel Yared
Cast: Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Cate Blanchett (Meredith Logue), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles), Jack Davenport (Peter Smith-Kingsley).
by Nathaniel Thompson