American writer Patricia Highsmith was enormously prolific and incredibly successful for most of her writing life. She was also an odd, misanthropic person, collecting admirers and colleagues rather than friends. She raised snails because she liked them better than people—no word what the snails thought.
Perhaps she disliked humans because she could so clearly see what they were capable of. Her stories and novels are at one level entertaining for their suspense and mystery, but they remain classics for their insight into the worst psychological aspects a mind can devise. And for this reason, they are both intriguing and excellent source material for thoughtful, disturbing films.
Her most famous character is likely Tom Ripley, a parasitic serial killer who somehow finds sympathy with audiences. There were ultimately five Ripley books as he played cat-and-mouse across Europe, always about to get caught before slithering away to ingratiate himself somewhere else once again. It was adapted in 1960 as Purple Noon, a French film directed by Rene Clement and starring Alain Delon. This version leans heavily on the claustrophobia of a yacht sailing around the Mediterranean.
The 1999 version places music – primarily bebop jazz – as the throughline. Both feature a cunning Tom Ripley sent to Italy by Dickie Greenleaf’s father. His task is to bring Dickie back to America, and reality. The younger Greenleaf has no intention of leaving his beautiful fiancée or the sunny cliffs of Italy for a boring corporate job. The three enjoy living large under the Mediterranean sun for a time, until Tom begins to see he will soon be left behind by the smart set and high life he has grown accustomed to. Murder and subterfuge ensues.
Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, was the product of a writer’s residency. She was recommended for the retreat by none other than Truman Capote.
The novel is startling in its simplicity. Two men strike up a conversation on a train ride. They wonder, hypothetically, if there truly is such a thing as a perfect crime. Bruno proposes the two “exchange” murders – he will kill Guy’s unfaithful wife and Guy will kill Bruno’s father. With no connection to the victims, the police will be stymied by lack of motive and both will reap the benefits.
Hitchcock adapted the book into a film of the same name, bringing even more notoriety to the author. The movie is dark and blunt, with noir elements, and often overlooked in a crowded filmography like Hitchcock’s. The style is very reflective of his popular television show as well.
Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt after the hit of Strangers on a Train, but it would be 38 years before the reading public knew it was her work. It was published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan, as both she and her publishers feared it was too far afield from her other work, and she might be labeled subversive.
Salt was a clear-eyed, dramatic romance novel about two women who fall in love and begin to navigate a world that won’t accept them. Without sensationalism, it seeks to cast the lesbian relationship as fraught with everyday hopes and frustrations. In 2015, Todd Haynes (the unofficial heir to the Douglas Sirk film) adapted it into Carol, with Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett.
Two Faces of January plays on Highsmith’s favored theme of an average person getting caught up in unthinkable events – and then digging themselves further into a hole. A vacationing couple befriend a local man, then accidentally kill a Greek official. The three escape with fake passports and thus begins a series of bad decisions as karma continues to catch up to them. The film is lovely to look at, with plenty of beautiful locations. The increasingly complicated plot is handled well by Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Issac.
Highsmith’s fourth novel is less of a tightly-scripted game and a bit more of a philosophical exploration on the nature of obsession and stalking. The heroine Jenny is watched by disgruntled divorcee Robert. He watches her through the windows of her home, until she catches him one night. Instead of raising the alarm, she invites him in and the two grow close. Jenny sees Robert’s appearance as a sign and she breaks off her own engagement. The two’s relationship spirals, causing collateral damage. The Cry of the Owl tries to pull these pieces together to make a more typical Highsmith thriller rather than let it be a slow, psychological burn.
A Kind of Murder is based on Highsmith’s third novel The Blunderer. Seen as a follow-up to Strangers on a Train, this novel brings the suspense into the domestic realm. Clara’s bad behavior has finally pushed her husband Walter over the edge. He makes plans for a divorce – then she turns up dead. He insists upon his innocence but the investigator officer becomes obsessed, and dangerously so. Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel use their dramatic chops for this swanky murder mystery.
Originally written for DVD Netflix