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Typecast as a mystery or suspense genre writer, Highsmith was happier in the company of Camus and Dostoevsky rather than that of even the most literary mystery writers like Chandler and Hammett. Happy Hollywood endings and tidy resolutions interested her not at all. Although most of the novels take place in exotic locales, the emphasis is on psychology and an interior life.
So why have filmmakers been beating a posthumous path to her door? (She died in 1995.) First of all there was the success of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Anthony Minghella in 1999, but given the talent that’s been drawn to her, perhaps it’s more the challenge of bringing such an intriguing artist’s stories to the screen.
You could teach a course in film history based on the directors involved — Alfred Hitchcock, René Clément, Wim Wenders, Claude Miller, Claude Chabrol, Liliana Calvani, writer-turned-director Hossein Amini and now, Todd Haynes with “Carol.”
Of all these talented filmmakers, Haynes is the first one to fully embrace Highsmith. Of course it helps that the novel on which it’s based, “The Price of Salt,” is her least violent and most romantic novel.
But that’s not the only key to Haynes’ ability to create a work that does equal justice to both himself and Highsmith. There is a matter-of-factness to Highsmith’s writing that eludes most filmmakers, who tend to go in the opposite direction.
Spoiler Alert: The rest of the piece, by necessity, will deal with the endings of both the book and movie versions of “Strangers on a Train,” “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley”/”Purple Noon.”
Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” based on Highsmith’s novel, set the tone in 1951. By any standards it is a great movie; in fact it revived his flagging career. Hitchcock and Highsmith were both dealers in dread and were both fascinated by extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. Producer-actor Norman Lloyd said of his friend's artistry, "With Hitch, it was the almost Kafkaesque anxiety of modern society."
That could also be said of Highsmith, but their storytelling and philosophical sensibilities went in opposite directions from there. Stylistically, Hitchcock was never more lush or witty than in the story of the sociopathic Bruno (Robert Walker) wanting to exchange murders with tennis player Guy (Farley Granger). From the opening montage of the two men coming together on the train to Bruno’s stalking of Guy at the tennis match (everyone’s head is moving back and forth except Bruno’s) and the penultimate merry-go-round chaos, Hitchcock is reveling in his visual artistry.
Pick a sentence or two of Highsmith’s humorless prose at random, and you’d never know she was much of anything:
“Guy leaned against his bed in the Montecarlo, watching Anne turn the pages of the family album he had brought from Metcalf. These had been wonderful days, his last two with Anne.”
It’s the accumulation, though, of this casual narrative, combined with Guy’s sympathy-for-the-devil transformation that makes Highsmith something special. Hitchcock only hints of a kinship between the two men. Guy would never commit murder and he and Anne enjoy a happily ever after life together. (Hitchcock would, of course, turn against Hollywood endings with “Vertigo” (1958) and later films, notably “Psycho” (1960).)
Highsmith was more concerned with the theory that any man is capable of murder, given the circumstances, and her anti-heroes, like Guy, live in a world that’s often not defined by notions of good and evil.
Guy goes along with murder partly because Bruno is blackmailing him, but you sense that he’s also curious about Bruno and the darkside. And, as with Meursault in Camus’ “The Stranger,” it just seems like the thing to do.
He doesn’t get away with the murder trade-off — he kills Bruno’s father — but her most famous character, Tom Ripley, does. René Clément captured Highsmith’s non-judgmental sensibility better than anyone else in 1960’s “Purple Noon” or "Plein Soleil" and Alain Delon was the best Ripley on film, but the film is trashed by Ripley getting caught in the end.
Matt Damon’s Tom does get away with the murder of Dickie Greenleaf in Minghella’s 1999 “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” though he sits bereft beside the body of the lover he killed who could have figured out that he had killed Dickie. That murder was invented by Minghella to show that even if Ripley gets away with it, he’s not going to have a happy life.
Highsmith’s book ends with something of a shrug and we know that if Tom doesn’t live happily ever after he does pretty well for himself, resurfacing for four sequels with a beautiful wife, a beautiful house in France and all the other trappings of a life well lived. Sure, he has to kill a few more folks, but hey.
The person who probably could have gotten Ripley right was Jonathan Powell, who made the great, original "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's Game" with Alec Guinness. He wanted to do for Highsmith what he did for le Carré — make the five Ripley novels into a "Ripliad" but couldn't secure the rights to all of them. Reached by email he said he never got as far as casting, but was thinking about the then-young Alan Rickman.
John Malkovich captured Tom's do-what-you-have-to-do spirit best in the delightful “Ripley’s Game,” which came very close to the Highsmith spirit, though Malkovich’s Ripley is more of a psycho than Highsmith's Tom — would we expect or want anything less from Malkovich?
Highsmith was magnanimous, at least for her, when it came to film versions of her books, though she did hate Dennis Hopper’s Ripley in Wenders’ “The American Friend” (also based on “Ripley’s Game.”) In “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” she said, “The most important thing is: Does the film work? Is it believable?”
She also said in that strange little book, which would be of very little help to a budding suspense writer, “I am interested in morality, so long as it isn’t preached.”
That’s probably the key reason why “Carol” succeeds at capturing Highsmith’s world where the others don't. Those others underline points of morality (Hitchcock, Minghella) or leave it out entirely (“Ripley’s Game”).
Finding the moral center of a Highsmith novel is part of the fun. It not only isn’t preached, it isn’t even stated. But it’s there.
“Carol,” or “The Price of Salt,” was a revolutionary book in 1952, a time when homosexuality was considered almost as great a sin as murder. First there is that matter of factness again. Therese accepts her attraction to Carol as matter of factly as Tom does his attraction to Dickie Greenleaf, though Highsmith insisted that the latter wasn’t a gay attraction.
At the time when the book came out, lesbians either had to be killed off or be driven insane. Those who survived went back to their husbands. It was less controversial for Tom to get away with murder than it was for Therese and Carol to wind up together. In fact, Highsmith originally published the book under the name of Claire Morgan.
Haynes captures that sensibility beautifully, which is why the film is more than a period piece. Therese and Carol never give in to being victims — and even the characters in his other great ode to the 1950s, “Far from Heaven,” really are victims of the time. Carol and Therese have their ups and downs, certainly, but there is a moral force of liberation, however unstated, driving them and Highsmith’s narrative into the 21st century.
Haynes isn’t above underlining ideas and emotions himself — Carter Burwell’s Philip Glass-like score; Claire’s plea for joint custody — but the soft focus of his cinematic palette and the extraordinarily subtle performances he elicits from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are not only worth the price of admission — they’re “The Price of Salt” in a nutshell.
Patricia Highsmith has never had it so good on screen.
"Carol" is currently playing at the Kendall Square Cinema, the West Newton Cinema, the Dedham Community Theatre and AMC Loews Boston Common.