“The Kind of Film You Make Passionately”: René Clément on Purple Noon

The following is excerpted from an interview that originally appeared in the February 1, 1981, issue of L’avant-scène: Cinéma. It was conducted by Olivier Eyquem and Jean-Claude Missiaen. Eyquem is a documentalist and former staff member at Positif; he blogs at Ecrans partagés d’Olivier E. Missiaen is a writer, director, and film historian whose books include monographs on Anthony Mann and Cyd Charisse. The interview was translated for this release by Nicholas Elliott.


How did you first encounter Patricia Highsmith’s novel?

[Actor] France Roche had told me about it first, but I hadn’t had the time to take a serious look at it. Then [producer] Robert Hakim brought me the book and asked me if I was interested in adapting it. That’s where everything started. I was immediately attracted to the novel’s ambiguity and feeling of uneasiness, which are constants in Highsmith’s work. Those who try to cultivate ambiguity in the thriller genre don’t always succeed, but Highsmith achieves something quite deep and genuinely successful. I thought I would work with [Jean] Aurenche and [Pierre] Bost, my usual collaborators, but Hakim dragged his feet. He had just produced À double tour, adapted by Paul Gégauff, and, possibly wanting to coast on the New Wave’s popularity, he suggested I work with him.

Gégauff was a good choice, especially for the first part of the film.

At first, I worked with two scriptwriters who didn’t provide very fruitful results. In the meantime, I found the film’s denouement by myself. Gégauff is a very sharp man, whom I greatly appreciated. We pulled off all sorts of acrobatics to make the action unfold more believably. We were a little rushed toward the end, but Hakim, who is an intelligent, efficient man with an admirable knowledge of his trade, proved very understanding. He said some extremely sensible and positive things about the work we had accomplished.

We started shooting, but I was missing certain scenes. So there was a certain amount of improvisation during the shoot, notably for the episode of Greenleaf’s death, which came out of circumstances I tried to make the most of, and for the seduction of Marge, which I wrote on set during the lunch break, because I could “feel” [Alain] Delon and [Marie] Laforêt and knew what they were each capable of. Cocteau used to tell me: “You always have to be ready for the unexpected.” You shouldn’t refuse to shoot because it hasn’t been set down in writing; you have to move forward. Paper and writing are very cut-and-dried. A script is like a score that is missing any indication of tempo. You have to breathe life into it. It demands an element of improvisation.

Patricia Highsmith appears indifferent to material plausibility and the actual details of Ripley’s scheme. Ripley practicing Greenleaf’s signature takes up about twenty shots in the film, while it is disposed of in a single sentence in Highsmith’s novel.

In that regard, the novel was completely indefensible. It was very difficult to adapt, and we were only able to find satisfactory solutions by taking liberties. In my opinion, a director must always prove what he puts forward. A writer can allow himself to say that a woman is incredibly beautiful, that she has delicate features and that her eyes are uniquely gentle. But as a director, I have to show her and ask myself who will play her. I can’t just dream anything up. If a sequence has two or three elements that crucially determine the action but are simply unbelievable, I can’t say, “Did you see that? It’s unbelievable!” The script has to make them plausible. If you look closely at the adaptation of Purple Noon, you will see our efforts in that direction.

Carrying over the ambiguity of the character of Ripley meant giving him a physical reality, in such a way that the sensations he experienced—his fear, his sweat—were constantly on-screen.

That is a game played in collaboration with the actor. After Alain killed the fat American, Freddy, I told him, “You shouldn’t have killed him. Figure it out—it’s your business now . . . Oh, if you had been more intelligent, you would have kept Freddy at bay, you would have seized another opportunity. But you didn’t premeditate anything, you’re not a real criminal, and you’re stuck. Forget the rest of the script—it’s up to you now. Get him down the stairs or you’ll go to jail.” But a corpse is heavy, and you don’t dispose of it as easily as in a novel; Delon had a hell of a time. As for me, I was there to film Ripley’s suffering. That was the game we were playing together, and that’s the attitude you should have when you really love what you’re doing and you respect the people with whom you’re working.

The signatures scene in the hotel seems to have been extraordinarily minutely prepared. Had you written everything, down to the smallest gesture?

No, you can’t get all those details down in a script; that’s part of the creation. There are ten thousand ways of approaching a script. For instance, imagine illustrating the following action: “The man is at the window. He turns around, sits down. A woman enters.” Some filmmakers—note that I say “filmmakers,” not “directors”—stick to the syntactic basics. But a director knows that when the man sits down, the cushion he rests on will rise up in a certain manner, and that through the crack we will discover something strange, etc. But he can’t put all that down in writing. He would wind up with a three-hundred-page novel. Would it make any sense to describe it? Would there be any hope of recapturing it on set? We ridicule directors who maniacally try to realize the images they carry in their minds, who stamp their feet and make a scene if the car passing in the background isn’t the right color. But maybe that color really does have its importance. How do you make a crew search your fantasies to find the exact reasons to reproduce what you more or less clearly imagined?

Should the director keep things a little mysterious for his crew?

Absolutely not. On the contrary! Your crew should know as much as possible about what you are trying to achieve. It must be with you. It would be illogical to leave your collaborators in the dark. Enthusiasm is born of shared work. The important thing is to know what you want. And to remain flexible so you can bring to life that entire part of the mise-en-scène that cannot be set down in writing, bring back to life the memories you carry. For instance, Ripley devouring a peach immediately after Greenleaf’s death, or eating a chicken after murdering Freddy—those incidents come from my memories of police reports I had read years earlier. I remembered that many policemen observed a type of bulimia among murderers after their crimes. A little like the banquets that follow funerals: life’s revenge over death. These memories reemerged, and I made Delon eat like a feline in the apartment scene; he shelters himself from the camera, he hides. That seemed very interesting to me.

Ripley: Portrait of the Artist as a Criminal

We never really learn about Ripley’s past. The shot of the children dancing in a circle is one of the few moments where we can guess at it. It is like a rush of innocence rising up in a very nostalgic manner.

By having Ripley watch the children turning on the sidewalk, I mostly wanted to show that life went on while this horrible thing took place. It’s like the spider we see before the railroader’s execution in La bataille du rail. It is more important than this man sentenced to the firing squad, who is already nothing. And he isn’t even dead yet, while the spider ambles about freely, accountable to no one. And here, see these children enjoying themselves, dancing in a circle, far from this tragic event, safe in their own world . . . But it’s true, we don’t know Ripley’s past. In fact, it is very ambiguous; when Marge tries to find out about him, Greenleaf pretends not to know him. I don’t believe Greenleaf, but what I like is that neither he nor Ripley told me everything. I like that. Julien Green once told me, “I started one of my novels with a really important character who was supposed to be the main thread, but at a certain point, he played a dirty trick on me: he took off, leaving me there with a young woman and a rather elderly gentleman whom I did not know.” “Well?” I asked him. “Well, what do you want? I kept talking with them.” I like the attitude of being somewhat led by your characters, because it seems to me to provide a guarantee of authenticity. And in this case, when Greenleaf says, “I’ve never seen him in my life,” I ask myself, Hmm, why isn’t he telling me the truth? It would seem so simple to make up another story. But Marge is referring to his own childhood, which is probably what bothers him.

There is a fascinating aspect of Ripley’s character that we also find in Highsmith’s novel. What I would call his “sponge” side. Ripley moves in a certain social context upon which he models himself, and absorbs everything about it. He has to make those he encounters love him.

The secret is Dostoyevsky. That’s where I went looking when I was adapting Purple Noon, particularly in The Insulted and Humiliated. Purple Noon is the story of a dreadful character who has killed two people, tried to steal, and attempted to seduce a young woman to squeeze money out of her. He is a horrible guy, but you don’t make films with despicable people—that doesn’t work. People want to relate, they want to identify. I’m stating the obvious. So how will I make Ripley likable? By humiliating him. At the beginning of the film, Ripley is nothing. Freddy doesn’t even look at him; he calls him “chum,” which is openly disdainful. O’Brien acts high and mighty around him. Riccordi can’t remember his name. He is treated feudally, which puts everyone on his side. Many viewers even think it’s too bad he gets caught at the end. After everything he did!

So there is this entire social contrast between money and poverty, the outcast and the rich. From the start, Ripley’s approach is determined by the offer Greenleaf’s father makes to him. And Philippe has no desire to go home; all he wants to do is happily squander his fortune! Humiliation is always lurking in the background symbolically. It is what gives Ripley heft.

Couldn’t you have spared him the punishment? Highsmith lets him get away . . .

No, no, there’s no way around it; you cannot transgress. But let me tell you the ending I dreamed of: Ripley has taken revenge; he too is, for he has been able to want something through to its conclusion. Here he is on the restaurant terrace, with that boat in the background raising its black sail. Everything has come to a stop, even the wind. But no, the boat sails on. What will happen? Ripley is rich; he continues traveling. He goes to Athens—why not? He disembarks at the harbor, and all at once we see two policemen apparently waiting for him at the end of the footbridge. We assume he’s done for. But no: the rule there is for two policemen to be posted at every boat’s arrival. Ripley makes it through without any trouble. Everything is fine. He winds up at the Parthenon, sitting on the steps . . . asking himself if he should turn himself in to be someone, to find a place back in the society that had stuck him in a hole. Everything he did becomes meaningful in the face of a well-structured, specific society, but not in the void.

That was the ending I dreamed of shooting, but who would have understood it and how would I have expressed it? It was very difficult. Hakim talked me out of it, and he was certainly right. So I came back to the epilogue I had thought of from the beginning and which we used in the film. Somehow it reassures people. It is immanent justice.

Ripley does not premeditate. He gambles everything on Marge’s love.

I think that Ripley’s use of revenge was a noble art, which filled him with the kind of creative joy experienced by certain artists. He played with fire. The letter to Marge was a close call; it nearly gave him away. The signature was very well imitated, but Greenleaf never signed that way when he wrote to Marge. A serious mistake! We know how many schemes have collapsed due to insignificant details.

And he stays in Italy, where all of Greenleaf’s friends live.

He has no choice; he is penniless. He constantly gets stuck in impossible situations. In real life, you might risk one, two, maybe three brazen acts, but never four; you’d be too scared. But Ripley keeps going, and that is what makes him remarkable. He is also very intelligent. “You know, I look like this . . . But my imagination . . .”

Revenge is only a part of Ripley’s plan.

That’s very clear, especially in the mirror scene; he is already seeking to usurp Greenleaf’s identity.

How do we interpret the Marge-Greenleaf-Ripley triangle? Is seducing Marge a means for Ripley to complete his identification with Greenleaf or is it simply a way to get the money?

It’s a complex matter. Disguising himself, imitating Greenleaf’s voice, the letter—which in and of itself is taking possession of Greenleaf—the villa to which Ripley returns to possess Marge . . . It seems like mimicry, but it is mostly anthropophagy. Which reminds us of one of the most obscure and distant aspects of our nature. To consume the bread and the wine—“This is my body, this is my blood”—isn’t that also anthropophagy? What about the mother who tells her child, “Oh, I could eat you up!” And what is physical love, in a way, other than anthropophagy? We are neck-deep in this context, whether we like it or not.

And here we have a total absorption of Greenleaf by Ripley. What else would Ripley be doing when he orders Marge, “Play, play for me”? [. . .]

Was it a problem for you to have American characters played by Delon and Ronet opposite actors Frank Latimore and Bill Kearns?

That wasn’t important to me. Take a Japanese man, a Brit, and an American: as soon as you get past folklore, you’ll find the same man. When you read Dostoyevsky, you’re dealing with profoundly Slavic reactions. Why would that interest you if you weren’t experiencing them too? Let’s expose the action, strip it bare, like Gaston Baty did when he placed his actors in front of a curtain. Giving Delon or Ronet an American accent would have been a useless addition.

And we all know perfectly bilingual people who have made a life in France or Europe and don’t want to leave, because they don’t like America. Greenleaf feels good where he is. He wants to go to Taormina, not to Los Angeles.

Wasn’t Alain Delon initially considered to play Greenleaf?

We have to reestablish the correct chronology. Delon was never considered to play Greenleaf, but we did consider another actor, whose name I won’t mention. I didn’t agree with the Hakim brothers about this, though this other actor would have provided better marquee value at the time. Delon wasn’t a star yet and had not done anything to tempt a producer. When this vacuum for the part of Greenleaf occurred, Delon’s agent, Georges Beaume, contacted me [it’s unclear why Clément names Beaume, as Olga Horstig was Delon’s agent at the time; Beaume would not fill that role until later]. I went to see Michel Boisrond’s Faibles femmes. Delon did not really shine in it; he did not stand out. Nonetheless, there was something that interested me in certain ways. Georges Beaume came to see me with Alain. We talked, and Georges came up with the idea of switching Ronet’s and Delon’s parts, adjusting them based on the two actors. It became obvious to us that Ronet would be better in the part of Greenleaf, and Delon in that of Ripley.

And Alain became Ripley more and more, following everything that was said to him to the letter. He had an exceptional ability to concentrate, a surprisingly fine ear. A receptive actor of this quality is rare and very pleasant for a director. How many actors only understand what they already know? It was thanks to this acuity that I was able to play the game I was telling you about. Faced with the truth I was seeking, I always had Delon, ready to take on every impossibility of the action, for it is impossibility that makes the drama move forward, of course.

The Naples Sky

Purple Noon was also the first film you made with Henri Decaë, who later worked with you on Le jour et l’heure, Che gioia vivere, and Les félins.

I wanted a certain style of photography and for Decaë to capture the light of the Gulf of Naples. The Naples sky is like no other. I observed it when I was traveling around the bay, spending entire days on a boat. When the sun rises in the morning, around five thirty or six, a marvel on the order of grace occurs. The air is light, a little sulfury; and the sulfur slowly becomes white, pastel, blue; and the gentle rocking makes one think of Bellini’s music. That’s where we come back to Ripley: why wouldn’t he also let himself be rocked to Taormina? With Marge, who inherited all that money? Notice that these sequences are punctuated by the Naples-Ischia crossing, with the small boat that crosses the bay and goes back down to Mongibello, toward that water-surrounded territory that is a little like Cythera.

Film shoots at sea are among the most challenging.

If you film the sea from two different angles, it won’t be the same color. Everything depends on the reflection of the sky. If the incidences aren’t the same, the color will change from one shot to the next, and it will be impossible to match them. You can’t put two shots on open water next to each other. The first one will be blue, the next green. It’s terrifying. You have to shoot cutaways to get from one color to the other by playing against the sky’s coloring.

When you’re at sea, you’re constantly confronted with the unexpected. Everyone knows the legend that the Flying Dutchman appears when a death has occurred on a boat. In Purple Noon, a white ship appears in the background right after Greenleaf’s murder. Isn’t it amazing that our Flying Dutchman arrived right as we were shooting this scene? It wasn’t called for, obviously; how could I put that in a script? Do you think a lot of ships with square lights go by in the Mediterranean?

We were quietly eating our spaghetti when it came along. It was an extraordinary sailboat belonging to the king of Denmark. We rushed to our boat. I asked Alain to jump at the same time, so I could get a first shot of him. We were being offered the Flying Dutchman!

Similarly, when I was preparing to shoot Greenleaf’s murder, the sea got whipped up and the wind suddenly got colder. In one morning, we filmed what would normally have taken a week’s work. Camera in hand, Decaë did everything I asked with tremendous courage. I know sailing—it’s my favorite sport—otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the risk. There were twenty people locked inside the Marge. We came down from the sailboat as quickly as we could to board a big launch, leaving Alain to get by alone, following the instructions I gave him by walkie-talkie. Alain was seasick; he couldn’t feel the deck move beneath him without feeling ill. It took great courage on his part to do it. Decaë was astride the launch’s stem as it leapt six feet over the waves, trying to frame this boat coming straight at us, and we were all wondering if Alain would be able to prevent the boat’s inertia from making it go adrift.

I knew a few tricks, like pointing the ship toward the wind, which gives a real cannon blast, but ran the risk of tearing the cotton sails, which were quite worn. I was in my own reality, and Alain, carried away by everything that was happening, gave us the scene you’ve watched.

In this case, we found ourselves in direct continuity with what I instinctively try to produce—which is to create when the opportunity arises to do so.

Had you planned for the storm?

It could have not happened, but we always had to be ready, just in case . . . Now if it hadn’t happened, I don’t know if we could have waited for it to happen . . .

How did you shoot the interiors of the boat?

The producers found us an abandoned movie theater close to the port. Paul Bertrand thought of building the boat set in there. I had a crane installed on risers three feet off the ground, with a track all along the set. The boat was on springs. A small part of the deck was removable, and I could use my crane to make the camera go down wherever I wanted—do a tracking shot, a pan, jump from one side to the other. The end of the crane was narrow enough to allow all these maneuvers. It was my “secret”: the narrower the place, the more I used my crane. I had already tried all this out on Gervaise, where much of the banquet was filmed like this. The crane is a way of moving the camera, and not simply a device to make it go up and down, as some believe. It is as if you took a weightless camera between your thumb and index finger, as if you put it on the tip of a weasel’s nose to look in every nook and cranny.

The rest of the film was shot on location. Apart from the Marge interiors, we only spent one day on a soundstage: for the scene in Ripley’s apartment, which was shot in Joinville.

Music and Soundtrack

You had previously worked with [composer] Nino Rota on Barrage contre le Pacifique. Doesn’t the main theme in Purple Noon come from Barrage?

The “Bellini theme,” as Rota and I referred to it, is an integral part of Purple Noon, but there is indeed another one that was used in the scenes between Perkins and Mangano in Barrage and can be heard in Purple Noon.

How did you work with Rota?

He was a marvelous, multitalented character, with an admirable understanding of images. When he asked me what kind of music I wanted for Purple Noon, I still didn’t “hear” any, but I had quite a specific intuition. “What do we see in this film?” I asked him. “The Bay of Naples. And for me, Naples is Bellini. I can easily see Norma. That’s Ripley. It’s ‘Casta Diva.’” We started thinking about it, and we got a melody line from Bellini. What was I looking for? I wanted to understand what Greenleaf, Marge, and maybe Ripley liked about the Bay of Naples. I saw a ship dancing on the waves, going toward that island—and anytime you go toward an island, all sorts of legends come alive—leaving again . . . You have to admit, it is quite pleasant to let yourself be rocked by that beautiful light, with those bluish mountains dominating the dark blue horizon, that calm, that mildness, those jasmine and orange-tree scents crossing the entire bay . . .

The credits start with this theme, but we don’t reach the end of it. And we nibble at it bit by bit, measure by measure, painstakingly moving forward . . . And Ripley has to work hard to make a living.

To start a theme and leave it hanging is to create a tension; the viewer is waiting for the chord. If you listen to the soundtrack, you’ll see how the first measures are hard and rapped out. It’s difficult to get to the first twist, which provides an answer after Ripley has had his first successes. But we’re not sure yet that we’ll get to the end, and completion is only attained over the very last shots. “Phew! He saved the best for last.”

Speaking of the soundtrack, it should be added that the film was entirely dubbed and that nothing remains of the original sound. The Italian sound engineer, who was used to the local method of postsynchronizing every film, had made a recording just good enough for the edit. There was interference, background noise, people talking. Everything had to be redone here. So I hired a boom operator. In order to re-create the real audio perspectives, I had him run after the actors as they went off in every direction. I remember Delon and Ronet chasing each other around the auditorium, jumping over a piano to get the right breathing, the inflections I was asking for. So Purple Noon is not truly a dubbed film; you can’t tell.

For the sound of the sea, we tried and failed to get sound from Hollywood. I decided to make it myself. I imitated the sound of the sea, the wind, and the waves at the microphone. I would record them on a tape recorder at home, then mix them in the studio. Purple Noon is the kind of film you make passionately, where every detail counts. We all believed in it.

I always tried to move forward, to evolve, rather than to repeat myself. People like to classify you. After Forbidden Games, it would have been great to say, “Clément equals childhood specialist.” But what does that mean? I have always been humble in the way I situate myself vis-à-vis the fantastic means of expression in cinema, of which so much remains to be explored. I always wanted to make studies of various situations and places. It’s a workshop spirit: “We’ve studied that; now we’re going to study this.” Each time, I try to take advantage of what I’ve learned, to make one plus two lead to three, and for the latest film to be the sum of all those that came before. I tried to move forward one step at a time; I go up the stairs step by step toward . . . I don’t know what floor. My life and destiny will decide that . . . People have had the impression I was searching for my way; in fact, I was always trying to go further. But perfectionism is a kind of vise that can close in on you. You have to avoid falling prey to it, and to always have more tools to tell stories.

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