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24 March 2021

Patricia Highsmith’s psychopath heroes

Her sly, rich novels do not seem tailor-made for cinema – but 100 years after her birth, Highsmith’s compelling characters are indelible on screen.

By Leo Robson

A m I a psychopath?” Patricia Highsmith wondered, in a diary entry from 1943. The verdict: “Yes, but why not.” As a child, she had discovered Karl Menninger’s collection of “deviant” case studies, The Human Mind, and experienced a shiver of recognition. A more recent discovery, Hervey M Cleckley’s book The Mask of Sanity, had prompted Highsmith to note a “psychopathic” strain in her efforts as an aspiring novelist. Asked decades later whether her characters matched this description, she laughed, then said: “Yes, I would call them that.” What exactly did she mean? That they were “incurable”, she replied. But on other occasions, Highsmith emphasised a freedom from convention that she seemed to admire, and even referred to “my psychopath heroes”. That sense of camaraderie, or affinity, provides the fuel for her work, and for its enduring and apparently growing appeal.

She was born 100 years ago, in Fort Worth, Texas. At the age of four or five, she was molested by a couple of male visitors, possibly salesmen. Later, her biological father, whom she barely knew, showed her his pornography collection and kissed her in a way that was, she wrote, “not exactly paternal”. Her adult relationships, mainly with women, were volatile and destructive, though in later years she preferred the company of snails, carrying them in her handbag and even her bra. Highsmith’s latest biographer, Richard Bradford, has taken his title, Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires, from one of her better-known diary entries, a 1947 “New Year’s Toast” to the things she hoped would never give her “peace”. (They didn’t.) Not long afterwards, her novel, Strangers on a Train, was published by Harpers and adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, with Robert Walker becoming the first of the many insidious and indelible on-screen Highsmith “heroes”. The premise, in which two superficially different men swap the murders they want to commit, remains the most potent distillation of the “double” theme explored in virtually all of her subsequent 21 novels, among them The Price of Salt (nowadays known as Carol), Deep Water, The Cry of the Owl and the sequence devoted to the con man and killer Tom Ripley.

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In the opening and best-loved volume, published in 1955, Highsmith made her two most resonant bequests to cultural history. The first descends from the title, The Talented Mr Ripley, a one-woman rehabilitation of a long-maligned adjective –“that vile and barbarous vocable”, in Coleridge’s possibly intemperate words. Highsmith’s formulation has been repurposed for countless headlines, captions and titles, including not a few bearing her own name. And then there is Ripley himself, born in Boston in the mid-1930s and orphaned not long after, who travels to Europe to find a man called Dickie Greenleaf, kills him, rips off his estate, then builds a life of sorts in northern France. Ripley is among the standout figures of Fifties American fiction, an unquiet period that also gave us Sal Paradise, Holden Caulfield, John Galt (from Atlas Shrugged), and The Cat in the Hat. He also has a strong claim, alongside Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter and “Pinkie” Brown, to the title of the psychopath’s psychopath. Ripley is charming, conscienceless, thin-skinned, acquisitive, status-anxious, wonderfully dissociated, less a sadist (he only murders when “absolutely necessary”) than a shape-shifter and social climber who will step on fingers and skulls to achieve his all-important (but meaningless) destination.

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The “Ripliad”, as it is sometimes known, offers a sympathetic record of his crimes. The grounds for identification are straightforward: Ripley is in peril, his enemies are abhorrent – gangsters, the idle rich – and the stories are told from his perspective. “The banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt’s phrase for the genocidal pen-pusher Adolf Eichmann, seems no less applicable here. Highsmith’s style is blithe and plain, far removed from the macabre melodrama of later psychopath narratives by Jim Thompson or James Ellroy, and murder is presented in terms always more logistical than ethical. Among the factors that Highsmith confronted when “plotting and writing suspense fiction” – the title of her 1966 primer – were “the speed of a train, police procedure, the fatality of sleeping pills, limits of physical strength, and the reasonable boundary of police stupidity or intelligence,” to which one might add the nuances of passport-tampering and the plausibility of synthetic facial hair.

In slightly more highfalutin terms, Highsmith’s achievement in the Ripley books also recalls Freud’s claim that great criminals, as depicted in literature, compel our interest through the consistency with which they protect their ego from anything that might diminish it. Their lives are organised around the need to sustain a grandiose self-image, and when something threatens that, consequences abound. Richard Bradford misses the point spectacularly when he says that a social slur depicted near the start of the third instalment, Ripley’s Game, is not a “convincing” catalyst for his revenge plot. But then descriptions of Highsmith’s work have a habit of slighting the reality, in praise as well as complaint. Slavoj Zizek, for example, who seems to be on the payroll of the Highsmith estate, tried to argue that Anthony Minghella’s artful and eye-catching adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) presented Ripley as “someone full of psychic traumas”. But Minghella in fact did away with Highsmith’s backstory – the death of Ripley’s parents and his dreadful upbringing with an aunt called Dottie – and the subtext of repressed or thwarted homosexual desire was already present in the novel: “I’m not queer,” Dickie assures Tom.

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 It’s true that Highsmith doesn’t indulge in psychologising. But then she barely indulges in anything, exhibiting little interest in sex, theology, politics, society. She writes about places insofar as they provide atmosphere, or plausible settings for misdeeds. That’s why it’s strange that her admirers have been so insistent that she transcended suspense writing, or expanded its potential; that she’s more than “just” a crime writer. You’d be hard-pressed to name a writer of any literary distinction more comfortable with genre mechanics, as reflected in the frequency with which her work has been adapted. In recent years, there have been versions of Carol, The Two Faces of January, The Blunderer and The Cry of the Owl, a second Deep Water is coming from Netflix this year, and the Ripley sequence has yielded five films (none of them made by an American), with a Showtime series starring Andrew Scott as Ripley on its way. Highsmith’s books are hardly screenplay-blueprints in the manner of Michael Crichton or Dan Brown; they’re too sly and tonally rich. But Highsmith wrote exclusively in the third person, and her narratives are defined by a wealth of incident and step-by-step logic. Minghella’s casting director could hardly read the description of Dickie Greenleaf’s odious pal Freddie – overweight with carrot-red hair, white skin and freckles – without thinking immediately of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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Ripley himself had already been memorably embodied by Alain Delon, in Plein Soleil (1960), and later by Dennis Hopper, in The American Friend (1977) – one of those loose-cannon performances that supply periodic injections of menace or malign energy, a tradition that also includes Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and Hopper again in Blue Velvet. But Ripley’s status as archetype or shorthand was secured in the Minghella version – the first film to use the character’s name in a title – where he was played by Matt Damon during his early Tom Cruise-ish period of playing young men extremely good at something – maths (Good Will Hunting), poker (Rounders), law (The Rainmaker) and, in the Highsmith instance, “forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody”. Then came John Malkovich, who, in taking the lead in Liliana Cavani’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game (2002), added Highsmith’s character to a gallery of literary villains and outsiders he has played over the decades, including Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, Lennie in Of Mice and Men, Mr Hyde in Mary Reilly and Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady.

Cavani’s film wasn’t a hit, but Malkovich’s bored suavity revealed a new dimension. When he intones, “these Balkan types tend to take strangling quite personally”, or looks around a train toilet full of corpses and notes, “it never used to be so crowded in first class”, you’d be hard-pressed not to recall another murderous mainstay of postwar entertainment. With his banal Christian name, ceaseless city-hopping and immunity to attempts on his life, Ripley is a Bond who knows that he’s a psychopath. Bond emerged in 1953, two years before Ripley’s own sun-kissed debut. Both were depicted – before their early-Sixties big-screen debuts – in episodes of the CBS anthology series Climax!, and have retained their allure and essential attitude over several decades of change in mores and acting style, taste and technology (Malkovich uses a “portable phone”). Canadian-born Roger Spottiswoode, who directed Tomorrow Never Dies, later made Ripley Under Ground (2005). This year Ana de Armas will become the first person to play both a Bond girl (in the forthcoming No Time to Die) and a Highsmith “heroine” in Deep Water.

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Ripley may not have Bond’s fame, but Highsmith’s influence is certainly pervasive. She has colonised a sub-genre, as well as a whole tract of human experience. Wherever you look there’s a Ripley type – Hugh Grant’s character in The Undoing, say, or the border-crossing poisoner Charles Sohbraj in the eight-episode BBC series The Serpent. Highsmith’s legacy is at risk of resembling an Escher staircase. Ben Affleck probably thought he’d landed a plum role when he was cast as the suburban husband, equally sinned against as sinning, in Deep Water. Then the déjà vu would have started to kick in: he’d already played a close relation of that character, in Gone Girl, the 2014 film of Gillian Flynn’s dazzling Deep Water tribute. Rosamund Pike and Amy Adams have both recently taken on roles in direct descent from Highsmith’s work for the second time. (Pike in I Care A Lot and Gone Girl; Adams in The Woman in the Window and another Flynn adaptation, Sharp Objects.)

At this point, 26 years after her death, the fate confronting Patricia Highsmith and her characters is not oblivion but saturation. Whether this will increase our understanding of this eccentrically gifted writer, or simply keep her name in lights, remains to be seen.

This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special