Off-the-Wall: More than Just a Game

It is a casual gesture – but when John Malkovich grabs a poker to stoke a fire warming his palatial estate, he also grabs filmgoers by issuing a sinister yet off-hand threat to Ray Winstone: "Do you want to tell me what you want, or do you want a truffling pig to find you dead in a month or two?"

Malkovich here plays the part of Tom Ripley, who has already killed a man with just such a poker: odds are that his companion is not long for this earth…

This is just one example of the fraught character study and riveting performances that distinguish Ripley’s Game (2002) from amongst the wide field of crime dramas.

Ripley’s Game is the latest installment in the Kansas City Public Library’s Off-the-Wall Film Series: the film starts at sundown (8:45 p.m. at the earliest) on Friday, July 15, on the Rooftop Terrace of the Central Library, located at 14 W. 10th St. This film series features film selections by Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, who has curated an entire summer of must-see cinema exclusively for the Kansas City Public Library.

Critics agree that Tom Ripley is the perfect role for Malkovich: his performance is anchored in a cool otherworldly detachment offset by quick murderous outbursts – usually accompanied by a sociopathic quip. Esteemed film critic David Thomson (an occasional guest at the Kansas City Public Library) describes this as an example of “sublime casting.”

Tom Ripley is a character with an established literary and film presence. The creation of author Patricia Highsmith, Ripley first appeared in 1955 with the publication of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which established him as a petty criminal grasping for culture and esteem that he achieves (along with some notoriety) only after he discovers a natural talent for murder. After a long hiatus, Highsmith continued what would be known as the Ripliad with two novels in relatively quick succession – Ripley Under Ground (1970) and then Ripley’s Game (1974).

There are four other film adaptations of the novels: Purple Noon (1960) – a version of the first novel; The American Friend (1977) – an adaptation of Ripley’s Game; The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); and Ripley Under Ground (2004). Not having seen every one of the Ripley films, I can only cite general critical opinion (which includes Ebert) that Ripley’s Game is the superior – which is appropriate, since this novel is the best of the three.

The only weakness of the Highsmith novels is that they do at times resemble something of a travel journal, as Tom darts around Europe to evade the law as he executes elaborate schemes (sometimes with no greater aim than to absorb culture). And while Ripley’s Game has its share of airports and train stations, it is also the most appealing character study as the narrative perspective shifts from Ripley (for the first time in the series) to Jonathan Trevanny, a sickly picture framer who allows himself to be manipulated and molded into an occasionally adequate assassin.

The film version of Ripley’s Game follows this same bifurcated narrative. When the camera follows Dougray Scott as Trevanny, it is hardly a letdown: Scott provides the perfect foil to Malkovich, whose incredibly cold nature is most apparent when contrasted with the steady erosion of Trevanny that Scott portrays onscreen.

This film is a great entertainment – especially for a film with such an amoral central character. But the film must be treated as something altogether different from the book that inspired it. There are many baffling departures from the text, such as transplanting the action from France to Italy and elevating one character (Tom’s wife Heloise is no-longer a socialite but rather an accomplished classical musician, still with no essential purpose) while denigrating another (Reeves Minot – the Ray Winstone character – is a suddenly affluent middleman rather than the international puppet master that Highsmith presented). 

The theme for the Off-the-Wall Film Series this year is “Ebert Presents Cult Films from the Balcony” – and Ripley’s Game is perhaps the most deserving of true cult status in this series since it is relatively unknown. As Ebert writes in his Great Movies review, Ripley’s Game would likely have been one of his top 10 picks in 2002, but: “Incredibly, it never opened theatrically in the United States… What American audiences lost was one of Malkovich's most brilliant and insidious performances; a study in evil that teases the delicate line between heartlessness and the faintest glimmers of feeling.”

Ripley’s Game stars John Malkovich, Dougray Scott, and Ray Winstone. Directed by Liliana Cavani. It is rated R. (110 min.)

Click here to RSVP for this event. Check out Ebert’s Great Movies review of Ripley’s Game here.

About the Author

Paul Smith is a Communications Specialist for the Kansas City Public Library. His responsibilities include coordinating all film screenings at the Central Library, including the Off-the-Wall Film Series since 2008.