Graham Greene famously declared Patricia Highsmith “the poet of apprehension” in the foreword to her 1970 short story collection Eleven. There’s no better way to describe the American writer, whose psychological thrillers meld gliding literary cool with a jangling morass of nerves – a combination, in turn, that film-makers have been trying to translate since the middle of the last century. This coming Tuesday marks the centenary of Highsmith’s birth, and her allure to screenwriters remains undimmed in 2021. A glossy new Ben Affleck-starring film of her novel Deep Water, the first film from Adrian Lyne in 19 years, is scheduled for August, while a TV version of Ripley, starring Andrew Scott as her most adaptable character, is in the pipeline.
They’ll join a large and variable roster of Highsmith screen adaptations, ranging from cast-iron classics to mouldering B-movies. It’s no easy subgenre to enter, the bar having been set impossibly high right off the bat – by Alfred Hitchcock, no less, whose perfectly sinuous film of Highsmith’s debut novel, Strangers on a Train (on Amazon Prime), released just a year after the book’s 1950 publication, surely played some part in cementing her own elegantly nasty reputation. A murder-swapping mystery shot in woodcut-sharp monochrome, it still finds room in its skin-tight plotting for hovering waves of queer energy.
Hollywood wouldn’t attempt Highsmith again for some time, but in the 1960s, European cinema entered a long-term love affair with her work – beginning with René Clément’s pristinely chic Plein Soleil (Amazon), an adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley that kicked off an ongoing, international tangle of further Ripley tales and interpretations. Clément’s oblique, sun-bleached introduction to identity-thieving serial killer Tom Ripley (played, never more beautifully, by Alain Delon) has little in common stylistically with Wim Wenders’ Germanic, foggily atmospheric The American Friend (BFI Player), which bathes Ripley’s subterfuge in a coffee-stained 1970s palette, nor with Anthony Minghella’s marvellous The Talented Mr Ripley (1999; Chili), the starry, glamorous classicism of which only briefly disguises its perverse, inky heart. Less celebrated but fascinating, Liliana Cavani’s 2002 film Ripley’s Game (iTunes) revisited the turf of Wenders’ film with less wintry ambience and more slithery, Malkovich-headed madness. That these films are so disparate only feels right: Ripley’s screen legacy is as shape-shifting as he is.
Other, non-Ripley European spins on Highsmith are thin on the ground in the streaming realm – or were, until I stumbled upon Church of Film, a Vimeo streaming service set up by a Portland-based repertory cinema project of the same name, dedicated to the rare and the little-screened. There, you can find a Highsmith mini-festival including Claude Chabrol’s slinky nightmare of male obsession The Cry of the Owl (1987); a chilly earlier dip into Deep Water (1981), ideally cast with Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant; Claude Miller’s unfussy but satisfying This Sweet Sickness (1977), starring a young Gérard Depardieu; and, heading back to Germany, a brisk, stern, Oscar-nominated adaptation of her wrongful-imprisonment story The Glass Cell (1978) that Highsmith herself rather approved of.
More recently, as highlighted last month in this very column, Todd Haynes’s swoon-worthy Carol (2015; Amazon Prime), adapted from Highsmith’s one outright lesbian-themed novel, holds the gold standard. It’s not quite rivalled by such honourable attempts as Hossein Amini’s sexy, gorgeously dressed period runaround The Two Faces of January (2014; Google Play), nor by the diverting but low-impact A Kind of Murder (2016; Microsoft), nobly led by Patrick Wilson. But in cinema, even medium Highsmith has it pleasures. Expect many more variations over the next hundred years.
Also new on streaming and DVD
My French film festival
(Curzon Home Cinema)
The annual online festival dedicated to new voices in French cinema is under way until mid-February, and should find a larger audience than usual in lockdown times. This year’s lineup mingles shorts and features, youthful comedies with oddball ghost stories and more: the names are largely unfamiliar, so taking chances and diving in is the way to go here. Working Girls, a study of border-crossing sex workers that Belgium has entered into the Oscar race, merits a second glance. If you want guaranteed greatness, meanwhile, a classic slot has been reserved for Jean Cocteau’s dreamy Orpheus.
British director Gavin Rothery has a background in graphic design and visual effects, which is plain to see in the gorgeous, steely surfaces of his debut feature, well-led by Theo James as an isolated AI scientist trying to digitally resurrect his wife. There’s much promise here, but the shadow of Ex Machina looms too large over it.
Now available digitally after its cinema release in August, Latvian animator Gints Zilbalodis’s beautiful, thoughtful long-journey-home adventure is a rare children’s film with a healthy dose of surrealism and melancholy: consistently endearing, never too cute.
Australian writer-director Natalie Erika James’s debut is one of a run of recent films to address the trauma of dementia, though its approach is bracingly original and moving. A sharp, tingling horror film that fashions fading memory as its own kind of haunted house, it walks a tricky line with tact and style to spare.