The young painters in George Du Maurier’s “Trilby” make 1850s Paris the backdrop for their bohemian escapades. Dickie Greenleaf is a similarly privileged young painter, except he’s chosen 1950s Italy, where he idles before the easel with the Mediterranean glimmering over his shoulder, while his quasi-girlfriend Marge Sherwood ploddingly hacks out a travel novel called “Mongibello.” Much vino is had, and “Papa Non Vuole”* plays from radios all over.
It’s not a bad life. In fact, it’s a good enough life to murder for – or so reasons Tom Ripley, the insidious, seemingly mild-mannered protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the first of five thrillers usually referred to as “The Ripliad.”
Tom arrives to Mongibello with the vague mission of making Dickie return to his American family, but soon insinuates himself into a luxurious life that he’s always been denied. His ambiguous affection for Dickie gets a little too intense, alienating a suspicious Marge; eventually, Dickie catches Tom imitating him before a mirror and wearing Dickie’s clothes. Tom is cross-dressing, but it’s not so much into another sex as it is into another social class.
It’s an unforgivable transgression.
Dickie is (understandably) weirded out by the impersonation, and suggests that maybe is time Tom was on his way. So Tom is all like: “Sure, but let’s go on one last boat ride for old time’s sake.”
And a-boating they go.
Then begins Ripley’s true con, and for the details you need to read the book, which I wholly recommend to any Hitchcock fan. It’s not surprising that Hitchcock adapted another of Highsmith’s novels, “Strangers on a Train”; Highsmith knows suspense and psychos and McGuffins. What WAS a surprise to this first time Highsmith reader is how deftly she plays with our expectations of what a protagonist is.
There aren’t many questions in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” plot-wise: after all, we always know “whodunit”, and the savvy reader knows that…
… he’s gonna get away with it, because there are four sequels. DUH.
Ripley’s limited-omniscient-third-person P.O.V. template would resurface in “Columbo.” We watch the crime from the criminal’s perspective, we see the criminal evade the incompetent fumbling of the police, and then we wait for Columbo to say: “Uh, oh, just one more thing…”
“Columbo” always left us off the moral hook after forcing us to peep over the bad guy’s shoulder because we wanted Columbo to win, the way we’ve been trained to believe underdogs win. But there’s no Columbo in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and Tom IS the default underdog, (because he’s poorer than the people he’s conning, and because he’s sexually repressed.)
The thing is, Tom is not at all likable, or even that talented beyond a pointless gift for mimicry. Even his check forging leaves much to be desired, and he’s always desperately extricating himself from a foul-up. He’s the Closeau of killers.
He isn’t Matt Damon in the Anthony Minghella movie version, or Alain Delon in “Purple Noon,” the French version from the 60s. Those are movie stars and instinctively command our sympathy. (Dennis Hopper also portrayed the character in “The American Friend,” which suggests how fluid Ripley is.)
So the real question while reading the novel is: “How are we supposed to feel about Ripley?” Highsmith chuckles devilishly and shrugs. 1955 readers who cued in to Ripley’s hinted homosexuality probably equated it with perverseness. 2014 readers who do the same probably assume we’re meant to LIKE Tom because he’s gay, (and we know so was Highsmith.)
But it’s probably not as simple as either answer. On the limited evidence of this one installment, I think Highsmith was testing how far she could go with a truly socio-pathic lead (she was reputedly not a “people-person” herself). As for Tom’s gayness, I suspect Marge Sherwood isn’t too far off when talking about him: “Alright, he may not be queer. He’s just a nothing, which is worse. He isn’t normal enough to have any kind of sex life, if you know what I mean.”
That’s an important adjective there: “normal.” Suddenly Marge admits it’s NORMAL to be a homosexual. That’s snuck in there pretty subversively, for a 1955 novel! It’s Tom’s repressed asexuality that makes him weird. That’s where the duplicity and the murders come from. Intolerance leads to stigma, stigma to shame, shame to repression, repression to perversion, perversion to Ripley’s game.
I can’t wait to see how the idea develops over the “Ripliad.”
Killers are always creepier when they accompany themselves with a catchy ditty, and Ripley’s catchy ditty of choice is an Italian folk song of mutable lyrics anchored by a refrain of forbidden love: “Papa non vuole/ Mama nemenno/ Come faremo/ A fare l’amor.) Loosely translated, “Papa won’t have it/ mama won’t either/ how can we make it so we can make love?”
Italy resisted unification for a much longer time than comparable European countries, so the history of its folk music can be as evasive as Mr. Ripley’s personality. There’s quite a few versions of “Papa Non Vuole,” or “Babbo Non Vuole,” or rather “Bella Ragazza Delle Trecce Bionde” (“The Pretty Girl with the Blonde Tresses.”) What’s worth noting is the song’s symbolic question: how do people express love when they’re not allowed to do so? Not always in a healthy way.
Here’s Orietta Berti in a lyrical version:
Here’s Marisa Fiordaliso, chirpier:
And here’s Carlo Buti, crooning:
Classical music lovers can be excused for feeling deja vu, or whatever the Italian expression may be: the melody was appropriated with touristic boldness by Pyotr Tchaikovsky for his Capriccio Italien Op.45.