Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Eva Vitija’s documentary Loving Highsmith plays at SIFF Center this weekend.
A year ago I read Patricia Highsmith’s five Ripley novels, a chilling but gratifying experience. The series began in 1955 with The Talented Mr. Ripley (thus five years after the publication of Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train) and ended with 1991’s Ripley Under Water. In the character Tom Ripley, Highsmith created an apparently sociopathic killer, and yet it is easy to be drawn into Ripley’s world: He comes from humble circumstances, dreams of Europe and art and fine things, and is invariably trying to get out of some suspenseful circumstance that—at least in the short term—can make you forget his bad actions.
In the documentary profile Loving Highsmith, the author speaks about creating a character who feels no guilt. One thing that makes the books fascinating is that while Ripley may not feel guilt in the conventional sense, he is constantly feeling as though he’s going to get caught. “Being found out” is the prevailing terror of the Ripley books, and it is so powerful it becomes almost sickening—although Ripley’s ability to stay ahead of the game can also be exhilarating. This must be why he sticks in the imagination.
As this movie suggests, Highsmith (1921-1995) spent various phases of her life avoiding being found out, whether using a pseudonym to publish her lesbian romance Carol, or withdrawing to her European homes. It’s too easy, I think, to suggest that hiding her sexual orientation is the explanation for that fear of being caught. It’s deeper than that, and if Ripley did not feel guilt, you sense that Highsmith did.
The connection between author and character goes deeper, too, because the books (except maybe for the seamless first installment) are peppered with moments that read like Highsmith improvising some plot turn, or groping for a solution—almost nonsensically at times. But this works, because that’s what Ripley is doing, faced with imminent exposure or dangerous randomness. Ripley’s the author who writes himself into a corner, and then has to dream up an escape. Surely Highsmith identified with, and smiled upon, his lethal ability to improv his way to the next page.
Eva Vitija’s film is oddly personal and handsomely decorated, with photos and footage of Highsmith and some evocatively chosen scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Highsmith left diaries behind, nicely read by Gwendoline Christie. And the interviews with Highsmith’s family and lovers are illuminating (shots of an oversized Texas house where Highsmith’s relatives live now contain volumes about one of the worlds she escaped). If the movie glances quickly over accusations that Highsmith became antisemitic and racist when she got older, that fits the vibe here; this is not a film of inquiry, but appreciation, a rather soft approach to a figure who could be hard. It’s not a definitive documentary, but it is more insightful, I think, than many such docu-portraits.
November 18, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.