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GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER

Here, in Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel, is the Talented Mr. Ripley enumerating his talents: "Valeting, baby-sitting, accounting - I've got an unfortunate talent for figures. No matter how drunk I get, I can always tell when a waiter's cheating me on a bill. I can forge a signature, fly a helicopter, handle dice, impersonate practically anybody, cook - and do a one-man show in a nightclub in case the regular entertainer's sick."

Matt Damon doesn't have quite the same talents as Tom Ripley in Anthony Minghella's bravely altered (and much-overrated) movie of Highsmith's novel. His version of Ripley can play Bach's Italian Concerto on the piano and sing like an androgynous Chet Baker in a nightclub on the Italian Riviera. (He's a quick study; when he first hears a Baker record he says, "I don't know if this is a man or a woman.") But Damon doesn't seem quite up to flying a helicopter or toting up a restaurant tab in a flash. If you put me under oath, in fact, he seems altogether less competent and chilling than Highsmith's anti-hero.

Not so good, that, because the talent that Highsmith's Ripley doesn't list, of course, is "murdering two people and getting away with it." That shuddery denouement is why people have been reading Highsmith for years, even if the last adaptation of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" - Rene Clement's "Purple Noon" - found the killer out in its final seconds.

No matter what, Minghella is due a world of credit, I think, for chutzpah here. He isn't messing around. He takes the homosexual closet allegory that is only implicit in Highsmith's novel (as well as "Strangers on a Train," from which Alfred Hitchcock made one of his best films) and puts it up front in his movie. Highsmith wrote five Ripley novels before her death in 1995. It wasn't until the later novels that Ripley's sexuality is overtly called into question.

Early in her life, Highsmith had written a lesbian novel under an assumed name. And, along with those of us who first started to read her out of curiosity to know the diabolic imagination behind Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," gay readers have always been among her biggest fans. Sally Munt, a senior lecturer at England's Nottingham Trent University, has written, "Lesbian and gay readers, themselves positioned in an uneasy relation to the law and its regulation of permissible behavior, find in Ripley the antithesis of state-sanctioned Christian virtue. He pushes transgression to the limit."

If you've never heard of the Texas-born Highsmith, don't feel bad. The only people who have are movie critics, literary types and crime novel devotees. Julian Symons, the dean of the world's crime novel critics, once said: "In Europe, particularly in Britain, France, Germany and Spain, Highsmith is generally regarded as one of the greatest modern crime novelists. In her native country, her reputation is less high but has been growing." He also wrote: "She has been, without intending it, a prophet: the terrors and delusions driving her psychopaths to violent action are the ones we see enacted now in apparently motiveless crimes recorded in our daily newspapers."

To drag a homosexual closet story in through the side door of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and make it central to the movie is not only politically incorrect to the Nth degree ("Philadelphia" this isn't), it's commercially risky, too. Once the word gets out what its theme really is, even its glittering cast - Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law - may not be enough to herd people to the box office.

Without audacity, movies will eventually wither and die (and probably deserve to) and Minghella is due no end of credit for rolling the dice here. No "don't ask, don't tell" nonsense for his way of moviemaking.

Bravo for that, I say. If only he'd turn into an interesting filmmaker, his problems would be over. I've seen three of his four films, though, - "Truly, Madly, Deeply," "The English Patient" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," - and in every one there are invariably moments where all I want to do is to curl up and take a nap. A gripping storyteller, he ain't - not to my taste anyway. Nor is he particularly adept at handling sexual matters, which is no small problem because the subject of eroticism seems to be obsess him.

The dynamics of Highsmith's tale, though, remain brightly creepy in Minghella's version. Ripley is a men's room attendant in '50s Manhattan who is, by accident, mistaken for a Princeton graduate at a lieder recital. So he's importuned by a wealthy industrialist named Greenleaf to go to Europe and fetch back his wastrel son Dickie, who's dissipating his life with jazz ("incoherent noise," says Dad) and carousing with a woman named Marge.

Tom, a lifelong have-not whose life has been spent serving the haves, is suddenly thrust into an existence of first-class tickets on a Cunard liner, Italian Riviera suntans, hedonism as a daily ethic and public mediocrity as a moral value. (Says Dickie, "I can't write and I can't spell. That's the privilege of a first-class education.")

Ripley insinuates himself into Dickie's life and briefly becomes his favorite fellow decadent. Says Dickie's sleek girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) as she watches them hack around in the water, "why is it that when men play, they always play at killing each other?"

Ripley's class-envy is so out of control that he quickly begins to covet Dickie's life to the point of erotic obsession. He wants to be Dickie. Or love him. When he discovers that Dickie's life won't let him do either, he kills him and impersonates him. Not with Marge, of course. Nor can he do it with Dickie's epicene friend and old classmate Freddie Miles.

That's a major problem. Marge can be artfully avoided but Freddie goes after the truth like a pig going after a truffle. Eventually Freddie has to bite the dust, too.

There's precious little terror in Minghella's quasi-Hitchcockian thriller but a great deal of basking in the Italian seaside and almost as much luxuriant creepiness. Ripley's envy of another man's life turns into love so extreme that murder - in his madness - is a logical solution.

It's at that point that Highsmith's tale either chills her readers or gives them reasons to identify. By making it all so explicit, Minghella finds another way to be unsettling.

The trouble is that his narrative sense still falters. After this film, you'd have to be very disturbed indeed to want to see another Minghella Ripley movie. (Highsmith wrote five Ripley novels.)

For all the high-gloss, magazine cover profiles of the performers (and a big push is now behind Jude Law who plays Dickie), the only actor here who gets your attention and keeps it is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie. He is preternaturally apt. This may be the most perfect American movie version of an upper class twit since the '30s, when it was something of a movie specialty.

Hoffman, who soon win admirers in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" is having the kind of year Kevin Spacey had when he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Hoffman is unlikely to get that kind of recognition this year. But, along with chutzpah like Minghella's, it's his kind of actor that keeps movies alive and flourishing.

RATING: 3 STARS

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