Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) (France, 1960)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's interesting to note that two of the best films I've seen theatrically in 1996 weren't made this year. In fact, they weren't even made this decade. The first, Martin Scorsese's classic, Taxi Driver, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. The second, Rene Clement's Purple Noon, is now age thirty-six. Championed by Scorsese, this re-release was handled by Miramax Films, which has brought back to the screen one of the greatest suspense thrillers ever to be filmed.

Purple Noon is an autopsy of a near-perfect crime, and a compelling look at the man who commits it. Played by a twenty-something Alain Delon, Tom Ripley is, at first glance, an unlikely criminal. Apparently insecure, he spends his time bumming around Italy, trailing after playboy Phillippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) and his beautiful fiancee, Marge (Marie Laforet). Tom has been commissioned by Phillippe's father to bring the wayward son back home to San Francisco. The fee for the job is $5000, but, once Tom becomes involved in Phillippe's life, its seductive leisure entices him away from his original goal -- or so it seems.

This is all really setup, because the meat of the story reveals that Tom is, in fact, an amoral killer, willing to do just about anything to get what he wants. And, while there's a prize for each crime, it's not the money that interests Tom. Rather, he enjoys toying with his victims and the police by seeing just how far he can go without being caught. His schemes become progressively more complex, involving switched identities, forged signatures, and more than one body. Tom is without remorse; the only emotion he displays is satisfaction at the success of his latest caper.

The plot, which is a wonderfully twisty affair filled with ingenious turns, is a delight to watch as it unfolds. On more than one occasion, Tom intentionally places himself in a precarious situation, and one fascination of Purple Noon is figuring out how he's going to extricate himself. Nothing about this movie is pedantic or predictable; it's two hours of pure suspense that puts many of the recent so-called "thrillers" to shame. It's a masterful effort by director Clement, and, considering the nature of the main character, it's not hard to understand why Scorsese would lend his name to the re-release (much as he did for Belle du Jour).

One of Purple Noon's most obvious assets is Delon's acting. Tom is fascinating because Delon makes him so. This isn't a run-of-the-mill villain; he's a complex character with a well thought-out reason for everything he does. He may be a psychopath, but there's a quality about him that engrosses and seduces us even as his actions cause repulsion. And, because the movie centers on Tom, there are times when we find ourselves hoping that his schemes will work, if only for the pleasure of seeing what he will do next.

In addition to Delon's fine performance, Purple Noon is characterized by expert camerawork and crisp direction. Clement understands how to sustain tension without drawing it out too far. The film is exactly the right length, as are each of the individual scenes. Cinematographer Henri Decae has composed each of his shots carefully, including a masterful series of closeups of Delon's eyes that reveal the sinister intelligence behind the apparently- guileless exterior.

With Twisters and Independence Days packing theaters and grabbing headlines, it's easy to bemoan the current state of cinema. So far, 1996 has not been a particularly good year for movies. For evidence, consider that this, the most suspenseful entry of the year (to date), first hit screens over three decades ago. But, regardless of its history, Purple Noon is currently available, albeit only in selected venues (and probably not in those multiplexes where Independence Day has captured four screens). There's nothing so engrossing as watching a truly intelligent thriller, and that makes this film a rare treat.

Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) (France, 1960)

Ranked #94 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1