"The Talented Mr. Ripley" by Patricia Highsmith

Il personaggio di Tom Ripley ci appare come un affascinante sociopatico, all’apparenza inoffensivo. Con questo Highsmith romanzo è diventata una delle maestre del thriller psicologico.

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The talented Mr. Ripley

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"The Talented Mr. Ripley" introduces one of the most enduring characters in crime fiction: Tom Ripley, a narcissist and opportunist, he seeks wealth, success and respect – and will do anything to achieve his goals. His creator was the American author Patricia Highsmith, described as the “poet of apprehension” by British writer Graham Greene. Highsmith became famous for her psychological crime novels, which started with "Strangers on a Train" (1950).


Tom Ripley, twenty-five, is introduced as a small-time conman. Once an aspiring actor, he has lost his way in life. Success and happiness are a distant dream. However, when wealthy owner of a shipbuilding company Herbert Greenleaf asks for his help in persuading his son, Dickie, to come home, Tom senses an opportunity:

- “‘I don’t suppose you could possibly get a leave of absence from your present job, could you?’ 
Tom’s heart took a sudden leap. He put on an expression of reflection. It was a possibility. Something in him had smelt it out and leapt at it even before his brain. Present job: nil. He might have to leave town soon, anyway. He wanted to leave New York. 
‘I might,’ he said carefully…”

““Se lei, o qualcuno come lei che lo conosce bene potesse prendersi un permesso dal lavoro, sarei ben felice di contribuire alle spese del viaggio. Sarebbe senz’altro più utile che se ci andassi io, comunque!” Il cuore di Tom fece un balzo. Assunse un’espressione assorta. Era una possibilità. Qualcosa dentro di lui l’aveva intuito subito, prima che se ne rendesse conto razionalmente. Lavoro attuale: nessuno. C’era la possibilità di tagliare la corda dalla città molto presto. E poi aveva sempre desiderato andarsene da New York. “Forse potrei,” disse pensieroso [...]”.


In Italy, Tom finds young Dickie Greenleaf living a life of leisure. The novel fizzes with sexual tension as Tom works to win Dickie’s friendship and approval, fearing rejection, knowing that Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge, dislikes him. Returning from a failed trip to Cannes, Tom is in despair, fantasising:

- “Tom stared at Dickie’s closed eyelids. A crazy emotion of hate, of affection, of impatience and frustration was swelling in him, hampering his breathing. He wanted to kill Dickie. It was not the first time he had thought of it.”

“Fissava le palpebre abbassate di Dickie. Dentro di lui stava montando un’emozione incontrollabile, fatta di odio, amore, frustrazione e insofferenza. Gli mancò il respiro. Voleva uccidere Dickie. Non era la prima volta che questa idea gli passava per la mente”.


On a boat trip together, Tom brutally murders Dickie. He assumes his identity, using Dickie’s money and status as his own. He just needs to stay one step ahead of the police, and persuade Dickie’s friends and family of his innocence. Can he do it? “Risks were what made the whole thing fun,” thinks Tom, as he dresses in Dickie’s clothes, talks like him, walks like him, becomes Dickie, body and soul:  

-“It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else. He was himself and yet not himself […] Now, from the moment when he got out of bed and went to brush his teeth, he was Dickie…”

“Questa certezza dava alla sua esistenza una indefinibile, deliziosa atmosfera rarefatta di purezza, simile a quella, riteneva Tom, che deve provare un attore quando sale in scena, conscio di saper recitare una parte meglio di chiunque altro. Era se stesso eppure non era se stesso. [...] Ormai era Dickie fin dal primo momento, da quando si alzava dal letto e andava a lavarsi i denti, tenendo il gomito proteso all’esterno come faceva lui”.


Highsmith chose the title for her thriller carefully, noting that “it felt like Ripley was writing it.” This might explain how Tom manages to commit murder and fraud, and gets away with it. There is no justice, no remorse from Tom. And yet, somehow, we want him to escape, to succeed in life. That is the real achievement, and mystery, of this classic crime novel:  

- “Did the world always mete out just deserts? Had the world meted his out to him? He considered that he had been lucky beyond reason in escaping detection for two murders, lucky from the time he had assumed Dickie’s identity.”

“Non sempre il mondo dava a Cesare quel che era di Cesare. E a lui cosa aveva dato il mondo? Si riteneva fortunato oltre misura per essere sfuggito fino a quel momento alla prigione per il duplice omicidio: fortunato fin dal giorno in cui aveva deciso di assumere l’identità di Dickie”.

Born in Texas and raised in New York, Highsmith moved to Europe in the early 1960s, eventually settling in Switzerland, where she died in 1995. During a career of almost five decades, she wrote some twenty novels and numerous short stories. The character of Tom Ripley appeared in another four novels, which came to be known as the ‘Ripliad’. They ended in 1994 with "Ripley Under Water", the fifth in the series. In 1960, the French director René Clément was the first to put Ripley on the screen. His film "Plein Soleil" was loosely based on Highsmith’s novel, with Alain Delon playing Ripley. In 1999, Anthony Minghella directed the Oscar-nominated film adaptation of "The Talented Mr. Ripley". It starred Matt Damon as Ripley and Jude Law as Greenleaf.

In April 2024 Netflix released Ripley. Directed by Steven Zaillian, with Andrew Scott in the leading role, the limited series is a black-and-white, oneiric take on the classic. As Mike Hale, from The New York Time, put it in "Ripley’ Review: The Con Man Gets the Art House Treatment": 

"For 'Ripley', an eight-episode adaptation of the book [...] Steven Zaillian has decided to do without the color. Shot — beautifully — in sharply etched black and white by the Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”), 'Ripley' offers a different sort of pleasure: the chilly embrace of the art house."

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