The Talented Ms. Highsmith

In this article from the print edition, Professor Charles L.P. Silet looks at the legacy of Patricia Highsmith, the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Patricia Highsmith is probably best remembered today for writing novels upon which successful movies were based, such as the recent The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) directed by Anthony Minghella and, most memorably, Strangers on a Train (1951) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It is unfortunate that her other fiction is not better known than it is because in over twenty novels and half a dozen collections of short stories she produced a body of work that evaded the limits of the suspense thriller, (a genre into which her writing has all too often been cast) establishing a category all its own. Graham Greene, in a review of one of her story collections, described her as having created a claustrophobic and irrational world which the reader enters with a sense of personal danger. Greene was not alone in pointing out the unique appeal and vision of her fiction.

Highsmith_on_After_DarkPatricia Highsmith lived an improbable life. She was born Mary Patricia Plangman on January 19, 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas, the only child of parents who separated before she was born and later divorced. She hardly knew her father and was largely raised by her maternal grandmother. When her mother married again, her stepfather adopted her and gave her his name-Highsmith. But the marriage was rife with tensions and eventually led to divorce, so her early memories were not pleasant ones. She never liked her mother and did not see her during the last twenty years of her life.

Highsmith attended Barnard College where she edited the college literary magazine and first started writing fiction. After graduating in 1942 she began her professional career by writing comic book scenarios and later, in the 1950s, scripts for Alfred Hitchcock’s popular television show. During the 1940s and 1950s she traveled extensively outside the United States, and in 1962 moved permanently to Europe, eventually settling in Switzerland where she died on February 4, 1995.

Highsmith’s success came relatively early and spectacularly when her first published novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), was made into a popular and critically acclaimed movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951. The movie starred Farley Granger as Guy Haines and Robert Walker as the psychotic Bruno. Through the years several of Highsmith’s other stories have also been made into films. The Ripley saga, which started in 1955 with the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, provided the inspiration for a number of screen adaptations. It was first brought to the screen as Purple Noon in 1961 by the French director René Clair. In 1999 Anthony Minghella directed a second film version of the book. Another book in the series, Ripley’s Game (1974), was made into a film called The American Friend in 1977 by German filmmaker Wim Wenders.

Several other non-Ripley Highsmith novels were also made into films, including The Blunderer (1954), adapted in 1963 as Le Meurtrier by Claude Autant-Lara, and This Sweet Sickness, adapted in 1977 as Dites-Lui Que Je L’Aimes by Claude Miller. In spite of her novels’ successful screen adaptations, Highsmith, unlike other genre authors before her such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, did not succumb to the lure of Hollywood but remained exclusively a fiction writer.

Throughout her career she followed a pattern of setting her stories in both U.S. and foreign locales. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first of the five Ripley stories (all of which are set in Europe), Highsmith developed two provocative themes. Her protagonist, the mercurial and protean Tom Ripley, commits several murders but escapes justice. And the narrative is centered on the interacting personalities of Ripley and his victim Dickie Greenleaf, whose identity Ripley gradually adopts as his own. This theme of characters as döppelgängers was one which Highsmith would return to many times in her fiction. Through the years she pursued Ripley’s career of deceit and homicide, publishing the final episode, Ripley Under Water, in 1992. She never concluded the series and right through the last installment Ripley remained at liberty and unrepentant. With the Ripley novels Highsmith turned the crime novel’s conventional “crime-does-not-pay” theme completely upside down by having Ripley benefit greatly from his terrible crimes. In the annals of crime fiction no one else has written such a sustained study of corruption rewarded.

Although critics have argued that Highsmith’s reputation as a writer of “suspense” fiction is misleading (in fact she wrote only one whodunit, A Game for the Living, in 1958), it is easy to place her work in the company of more conventional crime fiction because so much of it is laced with murder, obsession, deceit, and betrayal. The fact that she was made a Grand master of The Mystery Writers of America and received the prestigious Grand Prix de Littérature Policière from France also contributed to her being categorized as a crime writer. The successful films based on her fiction, especially Strangers on a Train and the latest version of The Talented Mr. Ripley have done their part as well by stressing those “thriller” elements, as films, in their reductive way, often do with complex works of fiction.

 Despite the labels, reassessment of Highsmith’s works is now underway as critics are beginning to analyze more closely her social novels and to reexamine her suspense books as social commentaries. As one of a number of postwar writers who inhabited the comfortable world of the period while undermining its conventions, her fiction signals a radical break with the dominant cultural narratives of the era. By attacking the gender assumptions, the ideology of home and family, the conventional economic wisdom, and the racial complacency of postwar America, Highsmith’s novels and stories form a sustained and quite radical review of U.S. culture at the time, both domestically and abroad. Her social commentary can be seen most clearly in what one critic has called her exurban trilogy and in her international novels, which are set mainly outside the United States.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s Highsmith wrote three works, Deep Water (1957), This Sweet Sickness (1960), and The Cry of the Owl (1962) which all deal with the middle-class lives of professionals who reside in fairly conventional small town or suburban communities. In these works, she chronicles her characters’ disintegrating marriages and destructive relationships against a background of individual isolation and loneliness. These three works combine to form a strong critique of modern American society with all of its commercialism, affluence, and alienation.

Highsmith’s increasing disaffection with the United States and its Cold War worldview, which in part prompted her expatriation and may account for the international flavor of many of her works, is also reflected in the increasingly political nature of her fiction in the 1970s, again with works set both internationally and in the U.S. For example, The Tremor of Forgery (1969), set in Tunisia in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli War, contains a serious critique of American foreign policy, and A Dog’s Ransom (1972), set in New York City, features a proletarian central character, a discussion of social class, and an analysis of the political and social upheaval of the sixties. She had included all of these issues in her previous fiction but neither as overtly nor as darkly, and she mined them more heavily during her last years, which prompted another critic to describe her later work as having abandoned character almost completely in favor of the social and political.

For all of the quarreling among the critics, however, there remains a freshness and a modern feel to all her novels, no matter how they are categorized, which is often missing from the writing of many of her contemporaries whose fiction now seems dated and strangely alien. This fresh quality has enabled her works to mature through the years, keeping pace with changing social attitudes.

In the extended review of Highsmith’s work and career by Susannah Clapp which recently appeared in The New Yorker, the author remarks that the social themes of Highsmith’s novels have not been adequately illustrated in the film versions of her fiction, and that, since filmmakers have avoided the pervading psycho-psychology in her works, they have greatly distorted her reputation as a writer. Ms. Clapp remarks that even the 1951 version of Strangers on a Train, despite its skill and Hitchcockian suspense, still pulls back from the darkness of the original novel by allowing the film’s hero, Guy Haines, to evade fulfilling his half of the murder plot. As a result the film becomes, in Clapp’s words, just another good-guy, bad-guy Hollywood movie.

The fact that Highsmith wrote about themes still considered too excessive to be handled by Hollywood, which nowadays can put almost anything on the screen says something about the unsettling nature of her vision. In hindsight it is perhaps easier to understand how her fiction went against the grain of the prevalent American idealogy of the time, with its Cold War mentality and refusal to recognize that, in a society presumably dedicated to equality and opportunity for all, social and economic justice were often hard to come by. Maybe it was her personal history or her expatriation or her singular genius for understanding the depths of the American psyche that gave her such insight into the mind and soul of American culture. Whatever the reason the fact that her fiction is still read with the same mixture of astonishment and recognition as when it first appeared is legacy enough for any author.


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