Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) is in Rome with his friend Philip Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), there to try and persuade him to return home to San Francisco, the down on his luck Tom having been promised a tidy sum by Philip's father should he succeed. But his pal has no intention of agreeing to that, even when it means he would receive this financial reward, and as the days go by Tom begins to covet Philip's wealthy lifestyle more and more, not to mention his beautiful girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt) who is not well looked after by the arrogant young man. For the moment, the two friends can live it up in Italy - but a plan is forming in Ripley's mind.
Filmmakers have tried a number of times to capture the peculiar tone of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels on the screen, with varying degrees of accomplishment, but French director René Clement got there first, a few short years after the original book had been published to some acclaim, mainly because the cooler than cool protagonist managed to pull off his scheming with quite some success. Likewise, the film was well regarded and it made an international star of Delon, though not as famous as he would be in his native France where he was a megastar; he credited Clément with teaching him everything he knew about making movies.
Of which this was one of his first, having made his debut a few years before in the mid-fifties, but really the work which both summed up and probably announced the type of role which would best suit Delon. Of course, what really made audiences sit up and take notice was how impossibly handsome and sharp he appeared on the screen, and with Henri Decaë's luminously decadent cinematography it was a rare film where the leading man seemed to outshine the physical beauty of the leading lady. Yet the more we were captivated by his Ripley, the further we had to question ourselves: was this any kind of reaction to a character who was so heartless?
Could we in any way endorse Tom's actions simply because he was the most magnetic person in the movie? This disparity between the surface glamour of what we were seeing and the wholly repulsive acts of murder which are just around the corner was the engine which drove Plein Soleil, generating an energy of evil through the striking together of the visually enticing imagery we were confronted with. The scene where Ripley and Greenleaf are alone on the yacht and we know something bad is going to happen was followed by a trick Clement would pull again, and it was a trick, because we have grown so invested in finding out what Ripley can do to better himself that we are willing him on when it becomes a struggle to dispose of the body.
We wouldn't normally be endorsing a murderer in real life, but Clément recognised that by having a movie star act out the dreadful behaviour in question the audience would almost unwittingly be wanting to see the murderous character triumph. When Anthony Minghella remade this story under Highsmith's preferred title of The Talented Mr Ripley some decades later, he made the killer a poor soul adrift in a world that he would flail in if he was not able to live on his wits, which may have been more sympathetic but represented a misreading of the persona that Clément and Delon got exactly right. Their only mistake was the sole flaw Highsmith found in the film, and that came at the end, otherwise Plein Soleil was very faithful, and its depiction of an icy heart which will not melt in that blazing Italian sunshine is one that truly gets under the skin. If nothing else, it was one of the most stylish thrillers of the era, capturing a Continental allure thrown into distinct relief by the darkness of the storyline. Nino Rota's by turns jaunty and dramatic score was ideal, as well.
[Studio Canal's spiffing Blu-ray looks excellent, with featurettes on Clément and the restoration, plus a Delon interview, as extras. The disc (DVD too) is released on the 16th of September 2013, but you can see the film on the big screen in the UK from August the 30th.]