Fall 2019

The Imposter

Bill Condon marvels at Anthony Minghella's nuanced take on The Talented Mr. Ripley

By Rob Feld

Our first glimpse of Matt Damon as Tom Ripley is within a title sequence by Deborah Ross that's reminiscent of Saul Bass. (Screenpull: Warner Bros.)


Bill Condon perches himself at the edge of his screening room seat at NeueHouse—New York. It has been a few years since he last watched Anthony Minghella's 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, and his energy, as always, is high. "This is a movie I've loved since I first saw it, which happened to be on Christmas night 1999—could there be a better antidote to holiday cheer?" His last viewing was to prepare himself for shooting The Good Liar, out in November, in which Ian McKellen plays a con artist and sociopath, not a far cry from Highsmith's duplicitous protagonist.

Condon immediately notes that Minghella approached his adaptation of the novel like a Hitchcock thriller, starting with a title sequence (designed by Deborah Ross) reminiscent of Saul Bass' work on North by Northwest and Vertigo (the film is set in 1958, when both of those movies were shot). "Look at these images cutting through black, fragments that ultimately lead to our first glimpse of Matt Damon. The jagged verticals clue you in to who Tom Ripley is: someone made of little pieces that don't fit together."

We don't know it yet but Tom (Damon) has just committed a murder, and his remorseful voiceover leads us back in time to a terrace party, where Tom is accompanying an opera singer on a baby grand, in a borrowed Princeton blazer. "Minghella has chosen the perfect location, a sprawling terrace perched above the Manhattan skyline, to present an image of American aristocracy at its pinnacle," notes Condon. "And two wonderful actors, James Rebhorn and Lisa Eichhorn, to portray the somewhat clueless blueblood parents of Dickie Greenleaf. Look at how fantastically geeky Matt Damon is when he runs across Fifth Avenue," Condon notes as Tom returns the Princeton jacket to its owner, after passing himself off as Dickie Greenleaf's classmate to his wealthy parents. "He's somebody who feels desperately like an outsider, the opposite of cool."

Dickie's father (Rebhorn) hires Tom to travel to Italy and convince his rebellious, jazz-loving son to return home and take his place at the company. En route, Tom meets the flirtatious heiress Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) and pretends to be Dickie. Once in Italy, Tom contrives a run-in with Dickie (Jude Law) and his girlfriend, Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow), and ingratiates himself with them.

"Again, notice how pale and unattractive Minghella and the great costume designer Ann Roth (who received a DGA Honor last year) make Tom," he chuckles as Damon, in the unsexiest pair of lime green trunks, feigns surprise at running into Law and Paltrow, who are lounging in the sand, blonde and bronzed. "Everything Tom wears is wrong. It's the middle of summer and he's in a corduroy jacket and wool pants that look too small on him. It still astonishes me that Damon, right on the heels of the breakout success of Good Will Hunting, chose this part as his follow-up. A movie star is supposed to be the sun around whom everyone else rotates; here, he lets Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow dazzle while he lurks in the shadows. I think it might be the most unselfish performance of recent movie history, and one of the greatest."

Soon, Tom is living in Dickie's house in Mongibello as an adjunct member of the family, soaking up lessons of privilege and class, and living a borrowed life. Once in their good graces, Tom pretends to drop a stack of jazz albums he purportedly loves, heightening Dickie's interest in him and garnering an invitation to Dickie's favorite jazz dive in Naples. It's a raucous club, colorful and loud, and Dickie enters like the mayor, kissing girls and joining the band to sing on stage. "This scene is just pure pleasure," smiles Condon. "You desperately want to be there with them, in that time and place." Eventually, Dickie pulls Tom up to sing with the band. "Minghella and cinematographer John Seale's compositions here, as throughout, are exquisite," notes Condon. "Tom and Dickie are packed together in the frame, and Tom can't take his eyes off of Dickie; he's falling in love with him. Tom's hair is messy and his tie's undone. He's starting to loosen up, to become more like Dickie. At the same time, we're wondering, what does Tom Ripley really want: to sleep with Dickie, or to be Dickie?"

Tom contrives an "accidental" encounter with Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Dickie (Jude Law) on the beach. (Screenpulls: Warner Bros.)

On another jazz-soaked evening, as Tom croons the Rodgers and Hart-by-way-of-Chet Baker standard "My Funny Valentine" to Dickie's musical accompaniment, the mood has deepened. "Now the gaze is going the other way, isn't it?" suggests Condon, as Dickie glances over his sax at Tom. "You can see Dickie starting to find Tom genuinely appealing, even sexy. As for Tom, he feels he is being seen for the first time. All the possibilities he's ever dreamed about are right there in front of him. He's finally being invited to the party. Minghella makes his yearnings so palpable that when it's taken away from him, it's almost as devastating for us as it is for Tom."

Tom's hopes are thwarted on a trip to Rome when they meet up with Dickie's friend, Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who monopolizes Dickie and pegs Tom as an interloper. "I love this shot," says Condon, as Dickie and Freddie share headphones in a record store booth, bopping to a jazz record as Tom watches. "Dickie and Freddie are huddled together, bonded by a shared sense of history, taste and class. Which leaves Tom back on the outside. The wall of the booth slices the shot in half, with Tom falling out of focus, discarded."

Thinking he's alone after Dickie and Freddie have ditched him, Tom strips down, then dresses in Dickie's tux jacket and goes full Fred Astaire, singing "May I?" along with Bing Crosby. "He's been pretending to like Chet Baker and jazz when all he really wants is to sing a show tune. Then Minghella reveals Dickie watching in the doorway, reflected in a standing mirror, surprised and appalled. Tom has to hide who he is, so he goes behind the mirror, leaving us with Tom's head and feet framing the full figure of Dickie, the person he most wants to be."

This episode causes Dickie to lose interest in Tom, and he suggests their next trip to the San Remo jazz festival be their final hurrah. As Dickie dozes beside Tom on the train, Tom places his head on Dickie's shoulder and examines their reflections together in the window. "Look at how Minghella shoots Tom's face, half obscured by Dickie's profile. God, that's powerful. They're starting to resemble each other. The makeup team have dyed Tom's hair blonder, and his skin tone now matches Dickie's. I'm sure Minghella was tipping his hat to Hitchcock and his own Highsmith adaptation, Strangers on a Train, with this scene. The flirtation between Robert Walker and Farley Granger in that movie, their delicious synchronicity, all of that gets referenced here."

As Dickie suggests that Tom's behavior is "Spooky. Spoo-k-k-key, k-k-key, k-k-key…," the rhythm of Dickie's accusation melds with the hi-hat cymbal of a jazz band in San Remo. "Minghella's Dickie is callow and casually cruel, just as he was in the novel. But he's more sinister here, responsible for the suicide of a local woman in Mongibello who's pregnant with his baby. In Minghella's telling, it's hard not to see Dickie Greenleaf as the embodiment of American decline, the WASP Eastern establishment destroyed by its own fecklessness and cruelty, with the Tom Ripleys of the world ready to step in and take over. This eulogy for the American century seemed just right for 1999, and 20 years later, it's even more powerful."

After killing Dickie in San Remo, Tom sets himself up in an apartment in Rome, maintaining the illusion that Dickie is still alive, but spurning Marge and flirting with Meredith. "Look at how the designer Roy Walker has Tom furnishing these rooms," says Condon. "He overdoes the luxury decorating accents, a crucial clue that leads Freddie to the realization that Tom is the one who's actually living here, and that he's impersonating Dickie.

(Top) Tom tries to prove his enthusiasm for bop by attending Dickie's favorite jazz dive, where their relationship deepens; (Middle) When Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman) shows up, it drives a wedge between Tom and Dickie; (Bottom) Tom is busted by Dickie as he's wearing his clothes. (Screenpulls: Warner Bros.)

"It's a beautifully staged scene," Condon continues. "Freddie tracks Tom through the rooms—he's on the scent. Minghella shoots the scene on a long lens, something he mostly avoids in the rest of the movie. Tom's and Freddie's faces dominate the scene, while the environment—which has up to this point played such an important role—fades away. All of which heightens the feeling of suspense, which, in true Hitchcock fashion, has us rooting for Tom—the criminal sociopath—instead of Freddie, the innocent friend. Finally, Minghella forces Tom and Freddie into the same frame, both transparently aware of what the other is thinking. It's unbelievably tense."

Condon now returns to a favorite theme, the endless inventiveness of Damon's performance. "There are a handful of moments in the movie when Tom is found out, and Damon plays each of them with the most disarming, almost innocent grin. He's like Beaver being caught with his hand in the cookie jar. It's his tell, and it's both chilling and sad." As for Hoffman, Condon notes, "His approach is very different from Damon's—you sense a lot of improvisation in the performance. It's jazz. The clash of acting styles is a good reflection of the clash of cultures represented by Tom and Freddie."

Here, Condon steps back to comment on the entire cast. "There's one area in which Minghella not only matches Hitchcock but surpasses him, and that's the sheer number of brilliant performances he elicits from his cast. Not only Damon and Hoffman, but Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett—they're all relative newcomers, at the beginning of their careers, already giving indelible performances that remain just as fresh and surprising 20 years later. Hats off also to casting director David Rubin for his stellar work here."

Tom kills Freddie and arranges things so that both Marge and the police believe Dickie committed the murder. However, Marge begins to have her own suspicions, finally confronting Tom when she finds Dickie's rings in Tom's apartment. Realizing that he has once again been found out, Tom searches for a weapon to kill Marge, finally choosing a razor. He hides it in the pocket of his white robe and slowly corners Marge as he tries to explain himself to her.

"This represents an interesting shift," says Condon as he sits forward. "For the first time, Minghella allows us to identify with one of Tom's victims." As Tom bears down on Marge, he doesn't realize that he's cut himself with the hidden razor. "Minghella shows the redness bleeding through the white fabric, the blood representing what's about to happen to Marge—it's very effective. But Marge has always been a sympathetic ally of Tom's, and we root for her to survive. We see Tom through someone else's eyes in this scene, a first for this movie. Marge becomes the dominant emotional force, and Tom suddenly seems like just another sweaty garden-variety psychopath." Condon suggests that Minghella is possibly pulling his punches here. "It makes for an effective sequence, but I wonder if our identification with Marge here doesn't undermine the rest of the movie a bit? We never invest in Tom in the same way after this."

Marge is spared as her gay friend, Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport), arrives just in time.

(Top and Middle) An encounter with Marge after Tom has assumed Dickie's identity comes perilously close to another murder; (Bottom) Tom is ultimately alone after he has eliminated practically everyone who has seen through his ruse. (Screenpulls: Warner Bros.)

But Tom has prevailed—Marge can't prove any of the accusations she's been hurling at him. Mr. Greenleaf passes Dickie's inheritance on to Tom, and he and Peter, now in love, travel by ship in a private cabin. Minghella creates a final bookend in which Tom is spotted onboard by Meredith, who still thinks he's Dickie Greenleaf. Tom finds himself trapped on the open seas, without any obvious escape hatch. He returns to Peter, who had seen him with Meredith and wants answers. Tom realizes that he is going to have to kill him.

"Tom lies down next to Peter in this wonderful two shot. It's an utterly tender moment," Condon narrates. "Minghella treats it as a traditional love scene, Tom asking Peter to list all the flattering ways he might describe Tom. At the same time, in the far left of the frame, Tom starts to wrap a tie around his hand, preparing to strangle Peter. This is the third time we've seen Tom getting ready to kill someone. But Minghella has become progressively more discreet in his treatment of the murders, and this time he doesn't even get to the beginning of the attack. Just this perversely romantic image, which is followed in a time cut by a shot of the empty bed, as Peter's recital of Tom's endearing qualities continues in voiceover. The cut is breathtaking, and you can't help but feel the influence of legendary film editor Walter Murch here. We suddenly realize that the murder has already happened, and that the body has been disposed of. It's Minghella at his best: image, sound, editing and performance all combining to create a powerfully disturbing and disorienting moment.

"We then cut to the close-up of Matt Damon from the very beginning of the film, where we see Tom realize what he's lost and who he really is," Condon continues. "Minghella cuts to Tom's reflection in a closet door, which swings back-and-forth as the boat rocks. There's nothing solid or substantial about Tom now. It's as if he doesn't exist. He's obliterated himself."

As the door finally closes on Tom and blacks out the screen, Condon sits back. "Minghella really works at a fever pitch in this movie. He celebrates beautiful surfaces while hinting at the rot underneath. And he's not afraid to let everything be a little ripe—more in line with the operas Tom Ripley likes, as opposed to Dickie's beloved jazz. Which reminds me, I can't believe we haven't yet given a shout-out to composer Gabriel Yared. His iconic score is such a crucial ingredient here. His haunting main theme reinvents itself almost as often as Ripley does. It's so emotionally lucid—another element that draws us into Tom's head, a place we're not supposed to want to go."

The lights are up, but the movie still casts its spell, and Condon doesn't seem overly eager to leave the theater. "Some people complained at the time that Minghella had sentimentalized Tom Ripley and softened Patricia Highsmith. And it's probably true. But I have to admit I prefer his movie to the novel, which I also love. The end of American empire, brought down by an imposter. Sound familiar?"

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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