Thursday, 26 June 2014

Ripley's Game and The American Friend: the Films and the Book (by Patricia Highsmith)

To round off what's become quite a protracted run of posts on Patricia Highsmith – links to previous missives in the run can be found at the bottom of this post, should anyone be remotely interested – I thought I'd take a look at two different film adaptations of my favourite of Highsmith's novels – indeed my favourite novel full stop: the third Tom Ripley novel, Ripley's Game (1974). One of those film adaptations, the eponymous 2002 version, directed by Liliana Cavani, I've seen a few times over the years (and watched again recently); the other, Wim Wenders's The American Friend (1977), I only saw for the first time last week. To be honest I was in two minds as to whether or not to post anything about either of them – there are doubtless plenty of reviews already available online. But what there doesn't seem to be so much of is comparison between the two and to the source text, and so here, for what they're worth, are some notes and thoughts along those lines.


For a start, though derived from the same source and following essentially the same story, The American Friend and Ripley's Game are very different films – the former a, for want of a better term, arthouse film, the latter I guess an old school Euro-thriller, albeit one directed by ostensibly an arthouse director (Cavani's credits include 1974's The Night Porter). I suppose one illustration of this might be how each film handles the pivotal scene early on where Jonathan Trevanny – in the book and in Cavani's film; in Wenders's film he's Jonathan Zimmerman – unwittingly makes a nemesis of Tom Ripley. Cavani correctly locates this scene in Jonathan's kitchen during a party, but then embellishes it, depicting a drunken Jonathan – played by Dougray Scott – deriding Tom's lack of taste to a cabal of cackling cronies, only for Tom – John Malkovich – to overhear and icily challenge him. Wenders relocates the scene to an auction room, but has Bruno Ganz as Jonathan underplay the offhand slight in the same fashion as the novel: upon being introduced to Tom – played by Dennis Hopper – Jonathan ignores Tom's proffered hand and mutters, "Oh yes, I've heard of you."


On the commentary track on the DVD of The American Friend Wim Wenders remarks of this scene, "That's what I love about Patricia Highsmith, to invent a whole story out of such a little incident: a man's pride is hurt." It's clear that Wenders is something of a fan of Highsmith, but Ripley's Game wasn't his first choice of her novels to adapt. His favourite Highsmith novel was The Cry of the Owl (1962), but the film rights to that book weren't available – and nor were the rights to his second favourite Highsmith novel, The Tremor of Forgery (1969), or his third favourite, or fourth, and so on. Eventually he met Highsmith and she explained that the only novel of hers where the rights were still available was the one she had just finished, because no one else had read it yet. She then pulled the manuscript of Ripley's Game out of her bag.

Cavani was also a Highsmith fan prior to filming her version of the book – "I love Patricia Highsmith and have read most of her books," she told an audience at the Boston International Festival of Women's Film in 2003 – but unlike Wenders she didn't actively pursue a Highsmith novel herself; Ripley's Game was brought to her by producer Ileen Maisel. What Cavani isn't a fan of, however, is Wenders's film. She told the film critic Gerald Peary: "I saw the Wenders film when it came out, but I didn’t like it very much. I don’t think Wenders quite centred on what Highsmith meant. He’d almost fallen in love with this cowboy character. It’s a reflection of those years, the 1970s, German directors discovering American directors and writers."


Highsmith herself wasn't exactly enamoured of Dennis Hopper's Stetson-wearing Ripley either – at least not at first; after an initially adverse reaction to The American Friend she later wrote to Wenders and admitted that she'd been wrong, even to the extent that she thought Hopper had captured the essence of Ripley, the soul of the character. I can kind of see what she means in some scenes, especially the first encounter between Tom and Jonathan in the latter's picture-framing shop: for me that's where Hopper is closest to the Ripley of the page – his reserved nature, the way he smiles at Jonathan. It's no coincidence that that was actually the first scene Hopper shot in the film: in those early days of the production he was sticking closest to the Tom of the novel and of Wenders's original script; thereafter his performance became more improvisational, while Wenders for his part was rewriting daily, the two striving to reach the "truth" of the character as they saw him.

According to Liliana Cavani there was plenty of rewriting on Ripley's Game too – she worked extensively on the script with the screenwriter, Charles McKeown – but at least in terms of that script there was apparently no improvisation on the part of Malkovich. How much of his performance was down to the writing, the direction or his own choices I couldn't say, but certainly Tom's malevolence is brought to the fore, Malkovich casually issuing threats to all and sundry (something the Tom of the books would never do) and even at one point providing (to Jonathan) a pithy summary of his character as the filmmakers saw him: "I'm a creation. A gifted improviser. I lack your conscience and, when I was young, that troubled me. It no longer does. I don't worry about being caught because I don't think anyone is watching."


A creation... a gifted improviser... lack of conscience: all this sounds like the Tom of the books, but what is lacking in Malkovich's portrayal is Tom's unexpected gregariousness and warmth. In the Ripliad people genuinely seem to like Tom; in Ripley's Game (the film) only his wife does, although arguably Jonathan warms to him. It's hard to imagine anyone else doing so though – and almost as hard to imagine anyone warming to Dennis Hopper's Tom: a loner with a penchant for recording his own rambling thoughts on dictaphone and reel-to-reel, living in a dilapidated city mansion lit by neon signs and flickering TV screens. Though again Jonathan does warm to Tom, even more so than in Cavani's version.

On the commentary track for The American Friend Wenders notes that he originally thought of John Cassavetes for the role of Ripley, which would have been interesting. In the event Cassavetes passed and suggested Hopper instead – another film actor who also directed. And in fact Wenders cast a number of film actor-directors and directors in the movie, all of them playing ne'er-do-wells of one type or another. The French actor-director Gérard Blain plays Tom's criminal associate Raoul Minot (Reeves Minot in the Ripliad); Sam Fuller, of Shock Corridor fame, plays the gangster Jonathan is supposed to murder on the train (with Tom's assistance); and Nicholas Ray plays Derwatt, the painter-forger Tom is in league with.

Ripliad enthusiasts might raise an eyebrow at that last one, because Derwatt is actually a character from the previous Tom Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground. He's not a forger in that novel either; he's a deceased painter who is forged by another painter, Bernard Tufts. I was a little surprised when I learned prior to watching The American Friend that Wenders had stapled some of the art forgery elements of Ripley Under Ground onto Ripley's Game – why would he do such a thing? – but his casting of his friend Nicholas Ray provides the explanation. Wenders reveals on the American Friend commentary track that Ray was dying – he finally passed away in 1979 – and that as a consequence Wenders wanted to get Ray into his film somehow. Unfortunately there was no part suitable for Ray, until Wenders thought of bringing Derwatt into the story.

Curiously, Cavani's Ripley's Game also introduces elements of art forgery: the film opens with Tom and Reeves – the latter played with sweary East End barrow-boy abandon by Ray Winstone, nothing like the Reeves of the books but immensely enjoyable nonetheless – selling forged paintings in Berlin, the funds from which Tom uses to buy a palatial villa in Italy – one which in truth is no closer to the more modest Belle Ombre of the books than Dennis Hopper's weird mansion in The American Friend. Jonathan lives in quite a nice gaff in the Ripley's Game film too, which on his wages I found slightly hard to believe, until I recalled how much some of the picture framers around Lewes charge.


Bruno Ganz's Jonathan, on the other hand, lives with his family adjacent to Hamburg's docks (like Cavani Wenders relocates the story from the novels' rural France) in a cramped apartment, one more befitting his evidently modest means. For me, Ganz gives the performance of either film. He's a more believable Jonathan than Dougray Scott for sure, but in his quiet and unassuming way he also outshines Dennis Hopper's chaotic turn in The American Friend and John Malkovich's dominating performance in Ripley's Game. I would say he's worth the price of admission alone, but The American Friend has much to recommend it besides, as does Ripley's Game, not least the aforementioned train sequence, which in both films is terrifically handled: thrilling, gruesome, darkly comic, and arresting in the moment, replicated in each film, where Jonathan tests the garrotte on himself. In general I don't think you could class either film as an especially faithful adaptation of the source material, but the gusto with which they both attack the same vital sequence speaks volumes to the passion of the filmmakers for their respective projects.

NB: German American Friend poster by Sickert filched from Mean Sheets.

Previous Patricia Highsmith posts in this run: 

Patricia Highsmith's Short Stories: Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, Signed Inscribed Association First Edition

Patricia Highsmith's Short Stories: The Black House, Signed Inscribed Association First Edition with Handwritten Letter

Donald E. Westlake on Patricia Highsmith and Ripley Under Ground (the Film)

A Suspension of Mercy: Book Review

Ripley's Game: 1989 Uniform Edition

Those Who Walk Away: Book Review

Friday, 20 June 2014

Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1967): Book Review

NB: Proffered as part of this Friday's Forgotten Books.

I made the point – not a terribly insightful one but I'm going to repeat it anyway – in my review of Patricia Highsmith's 1965 novel A Suspension of Mercy last week that the 1960s was a prolific period for Highsmith, at least in regard to novels: she published seven novels from 1960–1969, more than she managed in any other decade of her career. But the '60s were also, arguably, and again in regard to novels, her most experimental, most developmental era as a writer. The Highsmith decade began with a claustrophobic portrayal of a stalker told exclusively from the twisted point of view of that stalker (This Sweet Sickness, 1960), continued with a sympathetic portrayal of a peeping tom (The Cry of the Owl, 1962) and concluded with a sequence of three novels which, book by book, edged ever further away from the field for which she was best known: suspense fiction.

The first book in that trio was the aforementioned A Suspension of Mercy, with which Highsmith attempted to craft a suspense novel without a murder – unsuccessfully as it turned out (at least in the non-murder department; it's a decent book in its own right). The final book in the trio was The Tremor of Forgery (1969) – also the final Highsmith novel of the '60s – which dispensed with suspense – or crime fiction, or however you want to label it – altogether in favour of a character study – of a man, Howard Ingham, a writer like Highsmith, working on his next novel, living in a foreign land, cut off from his home and questioning his life, his sexuality, even the very nature of existence. It's a brilliant book, perhaps Highsmith's best non-Ripley novel, but in order to get to it Highsmith had to write the middle book of that '60s triumvirate:


Those Who Walk Away, published in 1967 by Doubleday in the US and Heinemann in the UK, which is the edition seen above (dust jacket photograph by Bruce Pinkard). On the surface Those Who Walk Away is another entry in the Highsmithic (as Book Glutton might put it) subgenre of two men who become dangerously fascinated by one another – see also her debut, Strangers on a Train (1950), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and from earlier in the '60s The Two Faces of January (1964) (others of her novels also touch on this theme to varying degrees). But though much of the novel is devoted to the game of cat-and-mouse in and around Venice between Ray Garrett, a young American art dealer, and his boorish father-in-law, civil engineer-turned-painter Edward Coleman, throughout Highsmith persistently subverts and frustrates the expectations of the reader. There are long stretches where not very much happens – on the surface; the interior lives of Ray and Coleman are another matter (the story unfolds from their alternating perspectives) – punctuated by violent clashes, but even these confrontations are inconclusive.


The cause of the animosity between the two men is the suicide of Coleman's daughter – Ray's wife – which occurs just prior to the start of the novel; that aside there are no deaths in the book itself. That's quite a change from Highsmith's novels to this point (her 1952 pseudonymous romance The Price of Salt aside), but just as interesting is what this would mean for The Tremor of Forgery. Like Those Who Walk Away, The Tremor of Forgery is shaped to an extent by a suicide – Ingham's friend and business partner, who kills himself once Ingham has arrived in Tunisia. But Highsmith does very different things with the narratives of the two novels as a consequence of those deaths. In Those Who Walk Away she shapes a cat-and-mouse story similar in many ways to some of her earlier novels, while in The Tremor of Forgery she veers off in a much more philosophical and interior direction.

That said, and as I alluded to above, there are philosophical elements to Those Who Walk Away, many of them to do with identity. Here it's possible to see a connection between Those Who Walk Away and A Suspension of Mercy, in that the earlier novel features a character – Alicia, the wife of American writer Sydney Bartleby – who is believed to be dead and who actively works to maintain that illusion, something that both Ray and Coleman do at various points in Those Who Walk Away. (It's also possible to see a connection there between Those Who Walk Away and Highsmith's second Tom Ripley novel, 1970's Ripley Under Ground: Ray in effect haunts Coleman in places – as opposed to Coleman, who hunts Ray – in a similar fashion to the way in Ripley Under Ground Tom haunts the painter Bernard Tufts, who believes he has killed and buried Tom.) This sloughing off of one's identity is also a part of the makeup of The Tremor of Forgery, so in that sense Those Who Walk Away can be viewed as a bridge between A Suspension of Mercy and The Tremor of Forgery.


For Highsmith enthusiasts and aficionados it's a fascinating novel, although I'm not sure how fascinated a more general readership might be: a purported thriller without much in the way of thrills might not be the most enticing prospect, though there is of course always the unique and seductive – at least to my mind it's seductive – rhythm of Highsmith's prose style. But for those of us who can't get enough of Highsmith, it's an important book – not so much for what it is in and of itself, but what it represents in Highsmith's wider canon: the penultimate step on the road that would lead to The Tremor of Forgery.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game: Heinemann Uniform Edition, 1989

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 13/6/14. 

Ripley's Game, Patricia Highsmith's sixteenth novel and the third book in her five-book Ripliad, is, I think, my favourite novel – not only of her novels – that I've read, which is quite a lot – but of all the novels that I've ever read. I wrote about the book at some length the year before last as part of the Great Tom Ripley Reread, and though I was relatively pleased with what I concocted at the time and for a little while after, on reflection I'm not sure I did the novel justice – and especially so in comparison to a series of articles on the book by John Mullan which I recently came across. Originally published in weekly instalments in The Guardian Review in 2003, Mullan's articles break the novel down into four themes – "the anti-hero", "split narratives", "the novel sequence" (i.e. the Ripliad as a whole), and "the setting" – and all are well worth reading for anyone with an interest in the novel, or Tom Ripley, or indeed Highsmith.

I stumbled upon the articles because I'd had my eye on a copy of the 1974 US Knopf hardback edition of Ripley's Game, offered by a UK seller on eBay (and AbeBooks), and was mulling purchasing it, at the same time idly googling the novel with half a mind to posting something on Existential Ennui if and when I did buy it. I already own the 1974 UK Heinemann hardback edition (a key book in my collection), which is in fact the true first edition – it published some months before the American one – but I'd not come across a copy of the US edition on this side of the pond before, and as it's in as short supply as the UK first (fewer than 20 copies in each case on AbeBooks), even though this copy was upwards of thirty quid – not exactly a fortune, but certainly not cheap enough for it to be an impulse purchase – I was quite tempted.

Then someone else went and bought the bloody thing and that was that. I stewed for a bit and briefly considered posting something about how I didn't manage to buy it in an illustration of the unjustifiable impulses, flights of fancy and bizarre sensations of forfeiture and loss which plague the inveterate collector, and so I could link those John Mullan articles, but in the end sanity prevailed – or at least what passes for sanity round these parts – and instead I did what anyone else in their right mind would have done under the circumstances: I went looking for an edition of Ripley's Game that was even scarcer than the 1974 Heinemann and Knopf editions. And I came up with this:


The 1989 reissue of the Heinemann edition, which is actually the third printing of the Heinemann hardback; the original edition was reprinted in the year of publication:


Now, a reissue may not sound terribly interesting or desirable, and maybe to most people it isn't; but to my mind this one is. For one thing there's that aforementioned scarcity: at present I can see just two copies of this edition for sale online, one of them ex-library. Then there's the design of the jacket and attendant jacket blurb, which is different to the 1974 one (both printings):


which bore a photograph on the front by Graham Miller and quite a bit more text overall. The 1989 edition strips back both the jacket text and design (which is uncredited), and in the choice of typeface and photo of a metal puzzle – a nail and a triangle intertwined like Tom Ripley and Jonathan Trevanny in the story – on the front, effectively matches the styling of Heinemann's Uniform Edition of Highsmith's novels, two of which, The Blunderer and The Talented Mr. Ripley – which were issued in the Uniform Edition in 1966 – I own (in later printings) and have blogged about:


However, the weight of the typeface in the title of Ripley's Game is lighter than that in the titles of other Highsmith Uniform Edition books, and there's no mention of this one being part of the Uniform Edition anywhere on the wrapper (and no price on the jacket flap either; I suspect the print run for this edition was small and most copies were destined for libraries and export). What there is a mention of is of two other Ripliad novels being reissued – presumably in the same style – at the same time: The Talented Mr. Ripley – which had already been issued by Heinemann a couple of times in the Uniform styling – and The Boy Who Followed Ripley, which was originally published by Heinemann in 1980.


Anyway, for me, being such a huge fan of Ripley's Game, this is a nice edition to own the novel in (as well as the Heinemann first edition), and I've added it to the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery under "Patriciaphernalia" down the bottom. And while I'm on the subject of Ripley's Game, I've also ordered The American Friend, Wim Wenders's 1977 film adaptation of the novel, on DVD, and plan to watch that and re-watch Liliana Cavani's 2002 adaptation, with a view to posting something on them both. However, my next Patricia Highsmith blog post will probably be on her 1967 novel Those Who Walk Away.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

A Suspension of Mercy (The Story-Teller) by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1965): Book Review

The 1960s were arguably Patricia Highsmith's most creatively fecund decade, at least as regards novels. From 1960–1969 she published seven novels in total, one more than she published in the 1950s (her debut, Strangers on a Train, arrived in 1950) and a good deal more than she managed in the 1970s, '80s or '90s (although admittedly she died halfway through that last decade, so we should cut her some slack there). I've read quite a lot of Highsmith over the years, but until very recently I'd not yet got round to two of the novels she published in the '60s: Those Who Walk Away (1967), her twelfth novel, which I'm currently reading and will write about shortly, and this:


A Suspension of Mercy, her eleventh novel, published in the US by Doubleday in 1965 (under the title The Story-Teller) but seen here in its British Heinemann edition from the same year, dust jacket design by Tom Simmonds (who also designed the wrappers for the British first editions of Adam Hall's The 9th Directive, George V. Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Peter Benchley's Jaws, among others). I've actually owned this copy of the Heinemann first for getting on for five years (I bought it on eBay in November 2009, and it's resided in the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery since I set that page up last year), which may well be a record for the length of time between my buying a Highsmith book and finally getting round to reading the bloody thing. However, that shouldn't be taken as an indication of anything other than circumstance and happenstance, and in hindsight I realise I should really have read it last year, for the simple reason that large parts of it are set in the bit of Suffolk where the Day-Joneses vacationed last September – said vacation resulting in an interminable series of blog posts about the various secondhand bookshops I dragged Rachel and Edie to.

One of those posts featured Framlingham, a highly picturesque Suffolk town (with quite a good secondhand bookshop, oddly enough) just south of which live frustrated writer Sydney Bartleby, his wife Alicia and their new neighbour in the cottage next door, the septuagenarian Mrs Lilybanks – in A Suspension of Mercy I mean, although I guess it's conceivable there's a real Sydney and Alicia Bartleby and Mrs Lilybanks living just south of the real Framlingham. Anyway, the story which unfolds is, unusually for Highsmith, a three-hander, with the point of view split between Sydney, Alicia and Mrs Lilybanks, though in truth Sydney gets the lion's share of the limelight, especially once he and Alica embark on a trial separation due to marital difficulties and she buggers off to Brighton and then Arundel – both of which, back on the subject of locale again, aren't far from where I live in Lewes. (Local towns Lancing, Worthing, Seaford, Peacehaven and Shoreham all either feature or are mentioned too.)

The increasingly tense events which ensue are driven by Sydney's slightly odd actions and Alicia's reaction to them. In a confused interplay between his fiction and his real life, Sydney imagines killing Alicia, acting out the disposal of her body by burying an old carpet in some local woods ("to purge himself", but also in an effort to tap into the psyche of a murderer – John Christie is mentioned) – an act witnessed in part by Mrs Lilybanks (there's a clammy encounter between Mrs Lilybanks and Sydney at the novel's midpoint where the former accuses the latter of murder – Highsmith switching viewpoints from Sydney to Mrs Lilybanks so we see Sydney, entirely innocent – of murder at least; we learn he has hit Alicia "not severely" on occasion – as he appears to Mrs Lilybanks: profoundly guilty); in turn, Alicia's determination to stay hidden is bolstered by the involvement of the police in her disappearance – prompted by Sydney's carpet-burying activities – and her involvement with another man.


Patricia Highsmith's biographer Andrew Wilson identifies A Suspension of Mercy "as the author's most postmodern novel", "a literary hall of mirrors in which reality and fiction are constantly reflected and, ultimately, confused". Beyond the obvious parallels between Highsmith and Sydney (highlighted by Highsmith herself in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction) – Sydney is an American writer, like Highsmith, living in Suffolk, as Highsmith was at the time she wrote the book – Wilson quotes Highsmith's friend (and Heinemann's advertising manager) Charles Latimer on a more specific correspondence: "Pat liked to act out things to see what they felt like. I remember she buried some snails in the woods behind her cottage to give her some ideas or emotions for A Suspension of Mercy."

Anyone intrigued as to why Highsmith would have chosen to bury snails in order to conjure these ideas or emotions should head to Kelly Robinson's Book Dirt blog, but more interesting to me is the way that Highsmith's and Sydney's ad hoc grave digging prefigures that in Ripley Under Ground, in which Tom Ripley – the Highsmith protagonist who most closely mirrors her outlook – both buries a body (Murchison, the art collector) and is buried himself (by Bernard Tufts, the painter). And there are further Ripley parallels too, especially in the form of The Whip, the criminal character concocted by Sydney for a proposed television series. When Sydney initially conceives of The Whip, he determines that the audience should see "everything through The Whip's eyes", as Highsmith's readership does with Tom Ripley (largely; Ripley's Game is the sole exception); that they should do "everything with him, finally [plug] for him through thick and thin", as is the case, arguably, for most readers with Tom's adventures in the Ripliad. Additionally, The Whip, like Tom, knocks someone out on the way to the wine cellar (Ripley Under Ground and Murchison again, who is bludgeoned by Tom – admittedly rather more lethally – in Tom's wine cellar), and displays an aptitude for mimicry and disguise (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground) and even female impersonation (The Boy Who Followed Ripley).

On top of all that there's the matter of one character's demise, a death for which Sydney is indirectly responsible – "caused by his attitude" as he muses to himself, much as Tom's "attitude" causes Bernard's death in Ripley Under Ground. Highsmith's intention with A Suspension of Mercy, as she details in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (she devotes quite a bit of space to the novel in that book), was to have Sydney "commit no crime at all, only be suspected of one or two". In fact Sydney's playacting does in the end result in three deaths – the third one, at the novel's climax, particularly unpleasant. Here again Ripliad enthusiasts might think of Tom, especially when considering Sydney's fate at the end of the novel, although for my money A Suspension of Mercy, though engaging and laced with black humour, doesn't rank with the best bits of the Ripliad (Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game).


Andrew Wilson states in his biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow, that "[w]hat Highsmith tried, but failed, to achieve with A Suspension of Mercy – the creation of a suspense novel that did not feature a murder – she succeeded in doing with her next book, Those Who Walk Away". Until I've finished reading Those Who Walk Away I'll have to take both him and Highsmith – who notes in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction that the novel has "no murder, no big crime" – at their words, but while I'm polishing it off, and to continue the recent Highsmith theme on Existential Ennui, I thought I'd take a look at a curious edition of not only my favourite Highsmith novel, but my favourite novel full stop: Ripley's Game.

NB: For another take on A Suspension of Mercy, head to Olman's Fifty.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Donald E. Westlake on Patricia Highsmith and Ripley Under Ground (the Book and the Film)


NB: A version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker.

Four years ago I posted a review of Ripley Under Ground, Roger Spottiswoode's 2005 film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's second Tom Ripley novel. Much as I love Highsmith's source text – indeed the Ripliad as a whole – I wasn't terribly keen on the film; the dreadfully miscast Barry Pepper's performance as Tom Ripley left a lot to be desired, and the way the filmmakers eviscerated Tom's character, excising his murderous background, for me fatally undermined the entire enterprise. I didn't blame anyone in particular for any of this, but I did make note of one of the people at least in part responsible: Donald E. Westlake.

Westlake is credited as co-writer of the screenplay for Ripley Under Ground – with William Blake Herron – but at that point I was only dimly aware of who Westlake was; I hadn't yet read anything by him, although I was just about to, namely The Hunter, alias Point Blank – the first Parker novel (written, of course, as Richard Stark), and the first of many Westlake books I would read over the ensuing years. One of the most recent being this:


The Getaway Car, the forthcoming (in September) Westlake non-fiction miscellany put together by Levi Stahl of the University of Chicago Press. Levi kindly arranged for me to be sent an uncorrected page proof of the book, which I've been dipping in and out of since it arrived the other week; I expect I'll review it in full nearer the pub date, but I was drawn in particular to a piece to do with Westlake's experiences on Ripley Under Ground – partly because Patricia Highsmith has been on my mind of late (I reviewed two inscribed copies of her short story collections recently, and have further posts on her planned), but also because it sheds a little light on what may have gone wrong with the film and on what Westlake made of Highsmith – i.e., what one of my favourite authors, responsible for one of the two most brilliant series of novels to feature a conscienceless criminal ever written, made of another of my favourite authors, responsible for the other most brilliant series of novels to feature a conscienceless criminal ever written (IMHO).

It's part of a longer piece titled "The Worst Happens", which comprises a selection of Westlake quotes from an interview by Patrick McGilligan (originally published in Sight and Sound in 1990 and then later expanded for Backstory 4: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1970s and 1980s) in which Westlake expatiates on other writers' adaptations of his own work (The Hot Rock, The Outfit) and his own adaptations of other people's work (The Grifters). Westlake calls Ripley Under Ground – or rather "Mr. Ripley's Return" as the film was apparently known to Westlake – "one of the odder episodes", going on to recount how he "was delighted to take a crack at the book", and that his "first draft... attracted Michael Tolkin to direct... [who] had some lovely ideas, details of menace and suspense for the second draft, which I wrote, and then never heard from them again".


Over a decade later the film was made with no further involvement from Westlake (or indeed Tolkin), who had "no idea what happened to the script over the last eleven years" but who agreed to a shared credit in order to receive, on top of belated payment for his work, "a potential production bonus". This despite the fact that, as Westlake memorably puts it, "[n]o one [from the production] has contacted me directly. I am merely that truck-stop waitress in Amarillo they fucked in 1992. That's okay. I think highly of them, too. Someone working on the set of the movie—I think it was shot in France, but don't know for sure—said it wasn't coming out well, which could merely be schadenfreude."


As entertaining as all of this is, however, much more interesting to me are Westlake's thoughts on the source novel and on Highsmith herself:

I've always loved the deadpanness of Highsmith, and I thought it reached a peak in that book. The guy Ripley is tormenting, in his passive-aggressive way, suddenly turns around, smashes Ripley's head with a shovel, and buries him in Ripley's own garden. Ripley survives, comes up out of the grave later that night, takes a nice hot tub, patches his cut parts, and then what does he do? Call the cops? No. Shoot the guy? No. He haunts the guy for the next one hundred pages of the book, appearing and disappearing in windows, stuff like that.

I've long wondered whether Westlake read Highsmith – I mean beyond Ripley Under Ground, which for obvious reasons I figured he must have read at least – so it's nice to find that he did and that he loved her "deadpanness". I've yet to discover whether Highsmith read Westlake, but something I did learn was that almost certainly the two never met. Westlake told McGilligan: "I was delighted to take a crack at the book, and I didn't mind Highsmith's weirdness and repulsiveness, because I wasn't going to meet her or deal with her; that was the ground rule."


For me Highsmith's "weirdness and repulsiveness" are a big part of why her work appeals (let's not dwell on what that says about me), case in point being the next Highsmith book I'll be looking at: A Suspension of Mercy.