Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 29, 2008

The Crime Novels Of Patricia Highsmith

Filed under: Film,literature — louisproyect @ 2:41 pm

(Swans – January 28, 2008) Well-read Americans might not be familiar with the name Patricia Highsmith. At least this was the case for me before I stumbled across the movie Ripley’s Game on the IFC cable channel a couple of years ago.

Patricia Highsmith

Directed by Liliana Cavani and starring John Malkovich as Tom Ripley, a professional thief, it was quite unlike anything I had ever seen. Ripley, an American émigré living in rural France, pressures Jonathan Trevanny, a British frame shop owner in the local village who has never committed a crime in his life, to carry out a series of hits on Ripley’s enemies in the Italian mafia. Since Trevanny is suffering from leukemia, Ripley reasons that he would be amenable to killing complete strangers for a handsome fee in order to help meet family expenses after his death. Ripley has another motive in recruiting Trevanny. At the start of the movie, Ripley overhears Trevanny describing his estate as typically nouveau riche and out of character with the French countryside. Further study on my part would reveal that the Ripley films, and the nonpareil novels they are based on, nearly always involve such class resentments at their core.

Eventually I discovered that Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game also provided the narrative for Wim Wenders’s The American Friend that featured Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley and Bruno Ganz as the frame-maker Jonathan Zimmermann (a Germanized character in keeping with the film’s relocation to Rotterdam from rural France). Wenders took some liberties with Highsmith’s novels that are not quite successful in my view. The Ripley character seems more in keeping with Dennis Hopper’s public image rather than the fictional character. With a cowboy hat lodged permanently on his head, Hopper’s Ripley is much more macho than Highsmith’s character, whose epicene malevolence is rendered far more successfully in Cavani’s movie.

Since Ripley’s Game was such an outstanding film, I was persuaded soon afterwards to watch The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on a much younger Tom Ripley’s introduction to the criminal world. Starring Matt Damon as the title character, it involves Ripley’s introduction to the world of the haute bourgeoisie. Hired by a shipping magnate to persuade his playboy son to return home to America from Italy, Tom Ripley allows himself to become the son’s paid companion in a relationship that has strong homoerotic implications, another theme that is omnipresent in Highsmith’s novels. When Tom Ripley learns that Dickie Greenleaf, the boating heir, has plans to dump him, he murders him and assumes his identity. Damon, like Malkovich, is adept at capturing the utterly cynical and amoral psyche of this most intriguing character.

Based on a Highsmith novel

As so often happens with excellent movies like Ripley’s Game, I make an effort to read the novel upon which the screenplay is based in order to find out more about the author. Eventually I discovered that Highsmith’s novels have inspired some of the finest movies over the past 50 years including her first, which provided the scenario for Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Like the Ripley novels, Strangers on a Train involves homoerotic themes and a penetrating study of the lifestyles of the rich and infamous. Unlike the movies, however, the novels are blessed by Highsmith’s narrative voice, which is an utterly distinct one as demonstrated by this excerpt from Strangers on a Train.

That evening, Charles Anthony Bruno was lying on his back in an El Paso hotel room, trying to balance a gold fountain pen across his rather delicate, dished-in nose. He was too restless to go to bed, not energetic enough to go down to one of the bars in the neighborhood and look things over. He had looked things over all afternoon, and he did not think much of them in El Paso. He did not think much of the Grand Canyon either. He thought more of the idea that had come to him night before last on the train. A pity Guy hadn’t awakened him that morning. Not that Guy was the kind of fellow to plan a murder with, but he liked him, as a person. Guy was somebody worth knowing. Besides, Guy had left his book, and he could have given it back.

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5 Comments »

  1. Hi Louis,

    Nice piece. One of the more fully formed of your cultural writings, in my very amateur view.

    You mention “A Coffin for Demetrios”, but I wonder if you are familiar with the whole range of Ambler’s work. In particular, his directly anti-fascist writings of the early thirties are totally wonderful because of the hero and heroine, the Russian spies Andreas Prokovitch Zaleshoff and his ravishing sister, Tamara Prokovna. They are “Cause for Alarm” and my favorite “Background to Danger”, unfortunately made into a terrible movie with Peter Lorre annihilating the character of Zaleshoff.

    You might also find the detective fiction of one Joseph Hansen, no relation that I know of, worth reading. There are about ten or so of them featuring the gay detective Dave Brandstetter, who ages and finally dies (peacefully) at the end of the last book. Among my favorites.

    Comment by David McDonald — January 29, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

  2. I review 4 of Ambler’s classics here:

    http://www.columbia.edu/%7Elnp3/mydocs/culture.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — January 29, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

  3. It’s good to see this excellent writer and interesting individual valued and made the object of a serious article. But your approach seems to me to begin at the wrong end. To appreciate Patricia Highsmith we don’t need the approval of “the great Belgian Marxist economist and Trotskyist politician”. Highsmith’s work comes before and is quite independent of Ernest Mandel’s imprimatur. To give his judgment pride of place is to set a croaking toad on top of a butterfly. It’s certainly true that Highsmith’s novels are full of class conflict. But it’s very hard to find any representation of society that isn’t just as full. That goes as well for pulp thrillers, soaps and comic strips. If as a critic you concentrate on underlining class conflict, you aren’t telling us how a Highsmith novel differs from any rubbish on an airport bookstand. Critics shouldn’t treat art as the mere illustration of whatever view of society they may be in thrall to. Otherwise they’re concealing the work, not revealing it.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 29, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

  4. Actually, Mandel did not advise people to read Highsmith. He included her with a group of other writers who reflect–in his opinion–the impact of monopoly capitalism on crime novels, and specifically its role in undermining old-time Sherlock Holmes type tales. Frankly, I don’t see much point in trying to prove that Highsmith is superior to the average pulp fiction writer. If the quote from “Strangers on a Train” does not make the reader of this blog want to check out her novels, her reputation will not really suffer. Finally, I should have mentioned in my review that although she was strongly influenced by Andre Gide, she felt that her novels had much in common with Jim Thompson. I tend to agree.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 29, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

  5. Thanks. I understand now. You’re not writing literary criticism. If you were your job would be precisely to show the difference between Highsmith and “the average pulp fiction writer.” Incidentally, Highsmith didn’t demean herself as a writer by claiming similarity to Jim Thomson. He was extremely original and by no means an average pulp writer, at least until he went under to the bottle and Hollywood. But there’s nothing like his kind of savage violence in her books. Both, though, could go into the file marked, The devil has all the best lines.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 29, 2008 @ 9:26 pm


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