A more talented Mr Ripley

Film - Philip Kerr on what it takes to play one of literature's most charming villains

I have often watched a film and wished that the two leading actors had possessed the wit or the confidence to swap roles. As Alec Guinness did when he changed parts with John Mills in the excellent Tunes of Glory (1960); and similarly Newman with Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). With The Bounty (1984), I remember thinking how much better a movie it might have been if Daniel Day-Lewis (who played John Fryer), rather than the near-histrionic Mel Gibson, could have played Fletcher Christian. Much more recently, in 1999, with The Talented Mister Ripley, I don't think there was anyone who did not think Jude Law would have made a better fist of playing the title role than Matt Damon.

It is 50 years since Patricia Highsmith brought us the first of five novels featuring Tom Ripley, gourmet art-lover and borderline psychopath. Without Ripley, it is hard to believe Thomas Harris would ever have created that other epicurean monster, Hannibal Lecter. It is equally hard to understand why Anthony Minghella could ever have thought Damon was up to the role. It is difficult to imagine Damon killing a fly, let alone another human being. But anyone who saw Jude Law's capricious Bosie in Wilde (1997) or his murderous Harlen Maguire in Road to Perdition (2002) would surely agree that behind those matinee idol looks lurks a man equal to the task of playing one of literature's most charming villains.

Perhaps the best version of a Ripley novel is the first one, made in 1960 by Rene Clement. Titled Plein Soleil, the film starred Alain Delon; based on The Talented Mister Ripley, published five years earlier, it was released in the US as Purple Noon. It is one of Delon's finest performances and one can criticise it only on the basis that this is a French movie in French, but Tom Ripley is supposed to be an American.

Next up was Dennis Hopper in the Wim Wenders film Der Amerikanische Freund (1977), based on the third novel, Ripley's Game. This is now something of a cult movie; while it is noteworthy, the story is told mostly from the point of view of a picture framer played by Bruno Ganz. Dennis Hopper is not even identified as Tom Ripley, which seems strange to say the least. Yet somehow Hopper manages to dominate the film, finding something of the spiritual emptiness of Ripley if not his charm; he is hardly the bilingual Europhile envisaged by Highsmith, which Hopper's incongruous cowboy hat seems only to underline.

And so we come to the fourth actor to play Ripley, John Malkovich. This seems like perfect casting, for Malkovich, who himself lives in France - just like Ripley in the book, if not this film - oozes criminal intelligence and acquired good taste. Directed by Liliana Cavani (famous for the self-consciously decadent Night Porter, 1973), Ripley's Game is more or less true to the novel, and much more European in its sensibility than Anthony Minghella's film, which might be one reason why this $30m movie has yet to be released in the US.

Set 20 years after the events in The Talented Mister Ripley, Ripley's Game finds the hero married and living extremely well in Italy. Then Reeves (Ray Winstone), an old face from Ripley's nefarious past, turns up - not so much a bad penny as the whole arcade - to blackmail Ripley into killing someone in Berlin. Ripley politely declines the contract, but recognising his quandary, he does the next best thing and finds someone else to take the contract. He picks on Jonathan (Dougray Scott) a picture framer dying of leukaemia with only debts to bequeath to his attractive wife.

Malkovich's Ripley is certainly more talented than Damon's in that he knows about art, cooking and music, not to mention the best way to kill someone; but herein lies the film's main problem. In the books Ripley is never quite in control of a situation. He kills because he finds himself rumbled, compromised - to protect his collection of paintings and his privileged way of life. But Malkovich's Ripley is always in control of a situation and there is never a sense in which you think he might not get away with the killings he undertakes himself. The cool, disdainful smile never really slips, not even when garrotting three strangers on a train. Moreover, Ripley's marriage to a talented Italian harpsichordist bears no critical scrutiny. Still, it's a lot better than most other films around at the moment, so do give it a shot.

Meanwhile news reaches me that Ripley Under Ground, a film of the second book directed by Roger Spottiswoode, is about to start shooting and that Barry Pepper (The Green Mile) is to star, which will make him the fifth actor to take on the role of Ripley. And I thought Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan was the donkey that every actor gets to ride.

Ripley's Game (15) is on general release