Sometimes actors connect with their roles so profoundly that a new screen archetype is born: James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, Brigitte Bardot in …And God Created Woman, Anthony Perkins in Psycho. René Clément’s 1960 Purple Noon, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, contains one of those momentous fusions. Alain Delon’s Tom Ripley is a galvanizing performance that transforms an otherwise inconsequential movie into a minor classic.

At 24, Delon was ideally cast as a seductive, unprincipled opportunist. Ripley is engaged by an American industrialist to bring his indolent, expatriate son, Philippe (Maurice Ronet), back to the U.S. Subsidized by his family’s fortune, the prodigal Philippe has settled in a villa near Naples, idly sunning, sailing, and womanizing. If successful in his assignment, Tom, a schoolmate of Philippe’s, has been promised $5,000.

The opening sequence, set in a Rome cafe, establishes the ambiguous relationship of this tanned, dissolute duo. Aware of the reason for Ripley’s presence, Philippe alternates between regarding him as a friend and imperiously treating him like a servant. “He can do anything,” Philippe brags to acquaintances, as Ripley obediently forges his signature on postcards of Roman ruins. Devoting the remainder of their day to a series of callow pranks—purchasing a blind man’s cane and pretending to be sightless, initiating a ménage à trois with a woman in a horse-drawn carriage—these handsome narcissists, overgrown adolescents really, betray the homoerotic subtext of their bond. (A similar unarticulated yearning motivates the male protagonists of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, also adapted from a Highsmith novel.) Philippe’s girlfriend, Marge (Marie Laforet), a serious-minded art student writing a thesis on the paintings of Fra Angelico, instinctively views Ripley as a threat—a rival.

As Tom becomes aware that his mission appears to be doomed, he grows increasingly desperate. While sailing to Taormina with Philippe and Marge, he’s physically and emotionally abused by his pseudo-friend, leading to a violent confrontation. Subsequently, Ripley’s considerable talents for forgery, impersonation, and even homicide are taxed to the limit.

With his tousled black hair, choirboy face and lithe, smooth torso, Delon is totally convincing as a young hustler whose animal magnetism charms people into serving his purposes. There’s a sinister note of iciness underlining his beauty, a covert ruthlessness that defies anything standing between him and his goals. (Delon’s widely reported links to the French underworld retrospectively reinforce the shrewdness of Clément’s casting.) In the movie’s most striking scene, Delon dresses up in Philippe’s expensive clothes and proceeds to ape his voice and physical mannerisms, cold-bloodedly gauging his own precision in a mirror. In another sequence, alone on Philippe’s boat on a churning sea, the actor demonstrates his agility, executing a number of demanding athletic maneuvers with a dancer’s feline grace. Delon’s performance is so commanding that viewers feel compelled, against their better judgment, to sympathize with Ripley, no matter how monstrous his actions. Although the film’s ironic fadeout indicates that he’s destined to receive his comeuppance, one leaves somewhat saddened, rather than comforted, that this spellbinding amoralist is about to be apprehended.

Ronet, who achieved his own screen apotheosis three years later in Louis Malle’s The Fire Within, is very effective as the self-indulgent, slightly overripe Philippe, but is overshadowed by Delon’s star-making performance. As Marge, the only other role of consequence, the bland, sulky Laforet fails to ignite many sparks; unsurprisingly, she abandoned acting in the late ’60s to concentrate on the musical career that has made her a leading French chanteuse.

Purple Noon, resurrected after a decade out of circulation, inhabits a peculiar time warp. With its animated-graphics opening credits, conventional narrative style, and uneven pacing, it appears to stem from an earlier era than the formally innovative Nouvelle Vague films that emerged at the same time. Although key members of the crew were important collaborators of New Wavers—co-scripter Paul Gegauff contributed to most of Chabrol’s best movies; cinematographer Henri Decae and camera operator Jean Rabier, between them, shot features for Malle, Chabrol, Truffaut, and Demy—little of the freewheeling creative energy that marked French cinema of the early ’60s is evident here.

Director Clément, who died in March, was a generation older than the New Wave filmmakers. Following a series of semidocumentary dramas in the late ’40s, he hit his stride in the ’50s with Forbidden Games, a touching study of the effects of war on children, Knave of Hearts, featuring Gérard Philipe as a charming seducer, and Gervaise, a Zola adaptation that made a star of Maria Schell. After Purple Noon, Clément lost his way in a string of mongrel international co-productions, among them Is Paris Burning? and Rider on the Rain. (One guilty pleasure of this period is the 1964 Joy House, in which Delon, again playing a good-looking hustler, is imprisoned in a baroque house by the dazzling mother-daughter team of Lola Albright and Jane Fonda.) A creative burnout, Clément failed to secure financing for any projects in the last two decades of his life.

When first released, Purple Noon was lauded for the beauty of Decae’s luminous photography of southern Italy and the Tyrrhenian Sea. I doubt that anyone would say the same of the re-released version, billed by Miramax Zoe as “a Martin Scorsese Presentation.” The new prints are nearly as bleached-out and dingy as the bootleg videos of foreign movies broadcast on local access cable stations. The muddy skin tones and dank palette are sustained for 70 minutes, at which point there’s a sudden shift to brilliant color; the remaining hour mysteriously alternates between these extremes. It’s astonishing that Scorsese, a longtime advocate of color film preservation, would allow such shoddy work to appear under his imprimatur. One can only assume that the original negative, property of the notorious producing team of Robert and Raymond Hakim, has badly deteriorated since the film’s initial release. Whatever the reason, the current incarnation of Purple Noon is a grimy ghost of the movie once praised by critic David Thomson as “a suntanned film noir.”

Clément’s thriller isn’t notably thrilling, proceeding by fits and starts and containing some weird digressions, like an irrelevant mini-documentary tour of an Italian open-air fish market. But while watching it, one can’t help but be reminded of how many subsequent movies appear to derive from Purple Noon. The ambiguous erotic undercurrents of the scenes depicting Ripley, Marge, and Philippe in the latter’s apartment and on his boat parallel triangular relationships in, respectively, Losey’s The Servant (1963) and Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962). Episodes in which the male protagonists’ identities merge prefigure similar moments in Bergman’s Persona (1966) and its American descendent, Altman’s Three Women (1977). And the detailed presentation of Ripley’s photographic alteration of Philippe’s passport is a probable source of similar procedures in Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) and Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). All of these films develop Clément’s themes more effectively than he does, but few, if any, contain a performance as indelible as Delon’s enticingly malevolent Tom Ripley.CP