Monday, January 21, 2013

Inspiration: The Talented Mr. Ripley

I've been on spree of reading mystery novels, mostly contemporary. But when I came across a used copy of The Talented Mr. Ripley, a 1955 novel by Patricia Highsmith, in an L.A. bookstore, I snapped it up. For those not familiar with the plot: it's the story of an amoral conman (Tom Ripley) who becomes obsessed with a rich young playboy (Dickie Greenleaf) living in Italy. Tom does everything he can to come between Dickie and his close friend Marge, finally cooking up a plot to kill Dickie and assume his identity.


Of course, this work is primarily known as the 1999 film starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. But the book is pretty wonderful: the disturbing and violent elements are perfectly tempered by Highsmith's lush 50s Italian summer scenes. It's easy to see why Tom gets caught up in this world of privilege and glamour (the food descriptions alone make me want to drop everything and move to Italy). The narrative is told through Tom's point of view, giving insights into the character that the film lacks.


Fashion is a huge part of both the movie and the book, and the film's costume design won an Academy Award. Clothes represent so much in this world: lifestyle, status, privilege, and identity. In one of the most cringe-worthy scenes, Tom goes into Dickie's room while Dickie is out. Tom tries on Dickie's suit and hat, even imitating Dickie's facial expressions in the mirror, while fantasizing about killing Marge out of jealousy. Of course, he is caught by Dickie, and that's the moment their friendship begins to turn sour. (I could barely stand to skim this scene, it was so embarrassing.)

The character of Marge is fascinating, clothing-wise.

She dresses in a sort of boho resort style, in crisp white shirts tied over bikini tops, espadrilles, and peasant tops and skirts.

One of the book's more telling passages relates to Marge's clothing, in a way. Tom catches a glimpse of Dickie and Marge embracing, and his reaction is one of utter disgust.
What disgusted him was the big bulge of her behind in the peasant skirt below Dickie's arm that circled her waist. And Dickie--! Tom really wouldn't have believed it possible of Dickie!
There are two chief interpretations of this scene: that Tom is a misogynist or gay (or both). While the movie portrayed Tom as gay or bisexual (later becoming involved in a sexual relationship with a man), author Patricia Highsmith maintained that Ripley wasn't gay, just sociopathic in his need for devotion from Dickie. And clothing was hugely symbolic to him. He later spends whole evenings looking at Dickie's clothing, saying that material possessions "reminded him that he existed."

Cat Blanchett was a supporting actress in the film, in a role created specifically for the movie. There's not much to say about that, except that her clothes are fabulous.

How darling is this sweater? The trim could be easily added to an existing cardigan (check out my post and how-to on soutache).

The nipped-in waist on this suit is to die for.

And my favorite, her opera gown with an embroidered shelf bust and floral embellishment.

All in all, both the book and the movie are of definite interest to vintage fashion enthusiasts. Have you seen or read it?

38 comments:

  1. Oh yes, I LOVE the Ripley novels! I liked the film a lot although I have only seen it once - as you pointed out, you can really see how Ripley becomes obsessed with being part of this world. In the subsequent novels, I love the descriptions of Tom's elegant French wife and their home in the countryside outside Paris.

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    1. I should have known you'd be a Highsmith fan!!

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  2. I definitely saw it once all those years ago, but didn't take much notice of the details. After all, I just started sewing 9 months ago! Those screen caps definitely pique my interest in rewatching the movie.

    I definitely need to use the soutache technique in something ASAP! It's so sweet and looks complicated although you explain it beautifully.

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  3. Oh Gertie, you MUST see the original 1960 French movie "Plein Soleil", or "Purple Noon" in the English version.
    Alain Delon as Ripley is to die for...... and this film is much closer to the spirit of the book where there are no "gay" undertones.

    I agree with your love of the delightful costumes of the remake ....

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    1. Ooo, this is what I wanted to comment too - except I couldn't remember anything about the title except "purple", haha! But yes, one more vote to also watch the original 60s movie!

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  4. I've seen the film once, but it's actually such a long time ago that I can't remember it. I must track it down again and pay more attention to the costumes. The book sounds good, perhaps I should track that down too.

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  5. I really think the movie is amazing in subtly disturbing and creepy way. It's one of our favorites in our home, my husband (huge Matt Damon fan) was frustrated because he was just looking for it and seems to have lost our DVD. But, he also loves Damon's 'Rounders', which, blech.

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  6. I have read the book and watched the movie (too many times to count!) great inspiration for sure!!

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  7. actually my boyfriend is obsessed with the books. he keeps listening to them at night and had to go through a film marathon on the weekend! :) but i get to look at lovely costumes so it is all good!

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  8. I saw the version with US version of this movie and it scared the living daylights out of me so if the French version is even more true to the book - oh boy! But, being a clothesaholic, I was intrigued by the clothes of the period - they were amazing.

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  9. One of my all time favorite books! I admit I was very wary when the film came out but I think they did a terrific job and it has become one of my favorite films as well. The clothes are gorgeous and really reflect the time period. Great post!

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  10. Haven't read the book, but have seen the movie. Love all things mystery! Add fashion, and all the better :)

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  11. I find books are always better than the movie. As you said you tend to miss important points of view, and insights.. i LOVE reading, and this book is divine.
    I generally tend not to watch movie's that have been made based on books now, as I feel they are always a let down.. I started doing this after I saw The Da Vinci Code.. *shudders*

    www.becstitches.blogspot.com.au

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  12. Thanks for the post Gertie. When I first saw this film, I did a sketch of the aqua coat that Cate Blanchett was wearing - sublime design lines... Just love it, and always enjoy rewatching this movie - great performances, great fashion, great setting - all one could ask for in a good movie. Cheers from Australia, Tam.

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  13. Just love the Highsmith novels. They are all disturbing, told from the perspective of the "bad guy", and yet told in such a way that the reader is drawn in to supporting the often sociopathic protagonist. There is a film version of Ripley's game, made around 2002, starring John Malkovich as a suitably evil but fascinating Ripley.

    I think I've read everything she has written, or at least everything I have been able to track down.

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  14. Seriously, I have watched this movie over and over JUST for the costuming. Thank you for this great post!!

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  15. I haven't seen or read this yet (doing both is on my list), but I recently read another of Highsmith's books, Strangers on a Train. It was quite creepy, and strangely captivating, despite having uniformly unlike-able characters.

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  16. I've never read the book but am adding it to my own modern mystery marathon line-up, on the double!

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  17. I love that cardigan! I'm totally going to make that!!!

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  18. OMG, I just started reading this too. There must be something in the air - perhaps a new Ripley film, with fabulous costumes again, is on its way.

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  19. How completely odd! I watched this movie yesterday for the first time since it came out and really noticed everything!

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  20. I love the clothes in this movie but my sense of morality didn't allow me to enjoy it.

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  21. I was incredibly inspired by the movie as well. I altered a few patterns to recreate the white frilly shirt. I made a muslin, but haven't found the right fabric to make the blouse. I love how it is fitted and breezy at the same time.

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  22. oooh,you forgot the most gorgeous....the coat Marge wears for her final scene she leaves and tells Ripley she knows he did it....that collar is to die for!!!!

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  23. You should read/see the play version. It's another slightly different interpretation of the story to both the book and the film

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  25. Gosh I have never seen this film...Im not a Jude Law fan, but now Im going to add it to my 'Lovefilm' list and watch it during the week! Thankyou for this great post :)

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Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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