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Being Tom Ripley

Photo courtesy of IFC

As a critic, it’s easy to forget that there’s more to television than sitcoms, 13-part PBS documentaries, CSI knockoffs and endlessly replicating reality shows. Easy to forget that TV is also a round-the-clock showcase for films — old ones, new ones, dirty ones, even foreign ones, some of them so creaky and obscure it must be decades since they’ve seen the light outside of the vaults. I was reminded of this recently, watching old chestnuts on TCM like Arch of Triumph, with its rain-soaked glimpses of 1940s Parisian street life, and a new cinematic discovery, Ripley’s Game, on the Independent Film Channel.

This adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith thriller, directed by Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) and starring John Malkovich, turns out never to have been released theatrically at all, at least not in this country. A pity because Malkovich is perfect as Tom Ripley, American expat, connoisseur and gentleman sociopath — so much so that, after watching the film, I immediately started mentally casting him in adaptations of other Highsmith novels. Who better, for instance, to play the murderous, cigar-chomping American painter Ed Coleman in the Venetian cat-and-mouse thriller Those Who Walk Away?

As for Ripley’s Game, if you’ve seen The American Friend, Wim Wender’s 1977 version of the same novel, you’ll have a general idea of the plot. Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), a young Englishman dying of leukemia, inadvertently insults Ripley, who avenges himself by turning this innocent, unlucky man, already broken-hearted at the knowledge that he won’t live to see his son grow up, into a murderer and paid assassin. Trevanny’s crime? He said that Ripley had bad taste.

Ripley lives in grand palatial style on the outskirts of the small Italian town in which Trevanny ekes out a meager living as a picture framer. Ripley is a client, and Trevanny invites him to a party at his house, where the fateful words are spoken. Some time later, still smarting from the insult, Ripley is visited by Reeves (Ray Winstone), a swaggering cockney gangster and occasional associate. Reeves owns a nightclub in Berlin, and wants a Russian business rival taken care of. Since Ripley has no connection to the club, perhaps he would be willing to do the deed?

Ripley thinks not — he has nothing but contempt for Reeves — but it occurs to him that he does know somebody who has absolutely no connection to the Berlin club scene, or even to Reeves for that matter — Trevanny. And here the story turns diabolical. If you were dying, and had no money to leave behind for your spouse and 4-year-old child, could you possibly be persuaded to assassinate a Russian mobster (the scum of the earth, after all) in return for $50,000 in cash that would go to your family? Especially if, as an additional inducement, a consultation with one of the world’s leading experts on leukemia could be arranged for you gratis?

You must be joking, says an astonished and appalled Trevanny when Reeves drops in on him (out of nowhere, his connection to Ripley unmentioned) with this proposition. Really? How about if I give you $100,000, says Reeves, returning the next day. (Ripley, willing to pay to see his vengeance enacted, has doubled the purse.) And so, after being assured that there isn’t the slightest chance of his being caught, and hoping that a specialist he could never normally afford might give him some better news, Trevanny takes the bait.

I won’t spoil the story (it’s still being shown on IFC) by revealing anything more, except to say that the great perversity of both the film and the novel on which it’s based is the way in which they both suggest that murder is as easily accomplished as kicking a pigeon on an empty street. “I don’t worry about getting caught, because I don’t think anyone’s watching,” Ripley tells Trevanny in the toilet of a German train station, to which they’ve repaired to wash up after offing a mere three people on the Berlin-Düsseldorf express.

“Who are you?” the horrified Trevanny asks this man he barely knows, and whose malice he can’t begin to fathom. Trevanny is in tears and shaking violently (he’s not used to killing people).

“I’m a creation, a gifted improviser,” Ripley answers. “I lack your conscience. When I was young, that troubled me. But it no longer does . . . The world is not a poorer place because those people are dead. It’s not. It’s one less car on the road. A little less noise, and menace.”

The scene is like a smaller, grubbier version of Orson Welles’ grand climactic speech on the Ferris wheel near the end of The Third Man, and Malkovich’s fey, fluttery voice has never been so perfectly suited to his material.

“We have to get this flight,” he tells Trevanny, as casually as if they were leaving a party. “Shall we?”

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