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Movie Review: Who's The Mosted Talented Tom Ripley?

In 1955, Patricia Highsmith introduced us to one of the strangest, most distasteful characters ever to anchor a book series—and somehow got us to root for him. Tom Ripley is a forger, murderer, and thief of identities, and he’s completely spellbinding. He appeared in five books, though, amazingly to me, only four movies in 65 years. Well, technically five movies, but one of those basically no one has ever seen.


The one most people know is 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on the first book and starring Matt Damon. While I think Damon is quite good for this movie, I don’t think he makes a great Tom Ripley. This Ripley lacks the requisite charm and is too psychologically fragile.


I prefer Alain Delon in Purple Noon from 1960, also based on that first book. Delon has some qualities that very much strike me as Tom Ripley, although his strong, suave confidence indicates the Tom of later books a bit more than Tom at his outset.


The other two films are based on the third, and grimmest, book in the series, Ripley’s Game. John Malkovich is Ripley in the 2003 movie of that name, and while he misses a lot of who Tom is, he is, unsurprisingly, very good at playing up Ripley’s psychopathology.


And then we have The American Friend, from 1977, which stars Dennis Hopper, who is such a supreme weirdo that there’s not much point in evaluating his Tom Ripley, as he has no intention of playing Tom Ripley as “Tom Ripley.”


All of these films have their merits, and each one is worth watching on its own terms. Still, none of them quite “get” Tom Ripley. Which maybe shouldn’t surprise me given he’s always been such a fascinatingly difficult character to pin down.


All are available through streaming services, and I’m excited to see Showtime will have a series expected to cover all five Ripley books beginning later this year.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.