Class, Clothing and Landscape: A Deconstruction of The Talented Mr. Ripley

Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, explores the issues and struggles associated with the quest to find one’s own identity. Minghella’s film employs a post-structuralist analysis, seeing Tom and the individual not as an independent being, but rather “a ‘dissolved’ or ‘constructed’ subject… [who is] really a product of social forces” (Barry 65). Tom’s notion of self is in constant flux throughout the story, and both the audience and the characters within the film “enter a universe of radical uncertainty” (Barry 61)—unable to discern Tom from Dickie as he moves back and forth between personas, never quite able to zero in on his true self. To deconstruct Tom’s identity and convey its continuous instability, Minghella utilizes Tom’s costuming and his desire to move from a position of low class to that of the wealthy elite while also highlighting the contrasting landscapes of New York and Italy. In the film, Tom Ripley first appears sporting a Princeton jacket while playing classical music on the piano at a small upper-end party in New York City. Although the viewer is not yet aware that Tom has not attended Princeton, it is quickly made clear after he exits the party, returning the jacket to a friend who was unable to play the piano because of a broken hand. But before returning the jacket, while sitting on the piano bench at the party, Tom is approached by Herbert Greenleaf, a wealthy shipping tycoon whose son also attended Princeton. Even though Tom has never been to Princeton and does not know Greenleaf’s son Dickie, he lies to Mr. Greenleaf and asks him how his son is doing. The power that the Princeton jacket has in terms of social mobility is contrasted with Tom’s clothing in the following scene. After returning the jacket, Tom rushes to his day job where he is an attendant at a theatre. Dressed in all white, Tom is seen in the theatre bathroom brushing off men’s black suits and throwing away their trash, with no one ever looking at him. While wearing his white attendants uniform, “he is invisible whereas with the Princeton jacket he is noticed, recognized as a member of the upper-class” (Street 38). Tom desperately yearns to be part of this upper class and Minghella captures this in the same scene as Tom leaves the bathroom and goes to the upper balcony of the theatre. Parting the thick black curtains with his face half concealed behind them, Tom peers down at the stage over the tops of the audiences’ heads. His longing, melancholic gaze is seen momentarily looking in on the life he so desperately wishes to have, just before his stare is caught by a member of the audience, prompting Tom to shut the curtains and run away. While wearing his own clothing, Tom is an extremely soft spoken and nervous individual who is easily persuaded by others. In his meeting at the shipping yards with Herbert Greenleaf, Tom does not even accept the task of going to Italy to find Dickie and bring him home before Mr. Greenleaf says, “great, I’ll give you $1,000”—riding off in his car, leaving Tom standing alone on the docks. Tom’s apartment is another early indication of his wavering personality and class-status. He lives alone in a run-down, dusty, unfurnished dwelling below street level; like his identity which has been in flux since we first met Tom, his apartment is unfinished and unfurnished, unable to provide us with any reflections or indications as to his true self. After packing all of his belongings into one suitcase for the trip to Italy, Tom even calls the driver sent by Greenleaf “sir”, which prompts a bewildered look and laugh from the driver. The driver says that “the Greenleaf name opens a lot of doors” to the perpetually smiling Tom, who has most likely never been chauffeured anywhere in his entire life. Wishing to continue receiving the treatment and respect the borrowed Princeton jacket afforded him earlier, Tom next makes use of the Greenleaf name as he arrives in Italy. When running into Meredith, the daughter of a famous textile magnate, Tom introduces himself as Dickie Greenleaf, and the name arouses much excitement in Meredith who is happy to meet both an American and another wealthy individual. But Tom’s pretending to be Dickie is almost thwarted as Meredith comments on Tom’s single suitcase in comparison to her cart teeming with bags. Tom’s first two attempts to be an upper class member of society have now set-up a situation where he can only lie to both Herbert Greenleaf and Meredith in order to maintain his newly afforded position. The borrowing of the jacket forces Tom to pretend he is a Princeton graduate and the use of Dickie’s name now requires him to play another role solely for Meredith. When Tom first meets Dickie shortly thereafter, he is instantly enamored with the affluent, charismatic, and handsome jazz enthusiast. Dickie’s life in Italy is everything that Tom’s life in New York is not: it is bright, lavish, sun-tanned, and Dickie lives fast and hard, telling Tom that in order to find his house in Italy, “I took a boat out—first thing I liked, I got it.” Dickie’s wardrobe is stylish and ever-changing while Tom lives out of his single suitcase, wearing plain white dress shirts and a corduroy jacket. Even Dickie’s beach sun-tanned body is contrasted against Tom’s when Dickie says to his girlfriend, “you ever see a guy so white, Marge?” Tom and Dickie’s classes are sharply contrasted through not only their bodies and clothing, but through their abilities as well. Although Tom reads Shakespeare consistently throughout the film, Dickie comments on Tom’s inability to ski or sail a boat, saying: “Such low class, Marge, does this guy know anything?” Tom’s infatuation with Dickie’s class status and his lifestyle causes Tom to imagine being Dickie. He first stands in front of a mirror impersonating Dickie’s conversations with Marge and then later dresses up in Dickie’s clothing while dancing and singing in front of a mirror. Tom’s dressing up in Dickie’s clothing “symbolizes Tom’s recognition of a more perfect image of himself” (Street 42), as a member of the elite upper class. But when Dickie walks in on Tom, his brief fantasy is shattered and Tom must relinquish Dickie’s identity back to him once more. Tom later explains himself, confessing to Dickie that he is in love with his life, saying: “I’ve gotten to like everything about the way you live…if you only knew my life back home in New York.” When in Dickie’s company, Tom feels as though he is no longer a theatre attendant from the dark and crowded streets New York City. Instead, Dickie’s fortune and the wide-open, sunny, beautiful Italian landscape allow Tom to escape from his low class status and feel as though he is part of the privileged minority. But again, Tom’s dream is destroyed when Dickie tells him that he is actually looking forward to Tom’s departure back to America: “You can be a leech. You know that. Who are you, huh? Some third-class mooch?” But this time, Tom is unable to bear returning back to his former life in New York City—he attacks Dickie, killing him on the small boat in open sea. After Dickie’s death, the hotel receptionist mistakes the visibly shaken-up Tom for Dickie. At this moment, Tom realizes that he does not have to return to New York, but can instead continue to live prosperously through assuming Dickie’s title. Tom’s clothing also starts to become much more elaborate after Dicke’s murder (Street 45). He not only uses Dickie’s title and money to check into fancy hotels, but he buys expensive tailored suits and an ornate Italian leather-embossed wallet. Tom also steals Dickie’s old clothing: “His usurpation of another man’s clothing signifies the appropriation of his identity and an improvement in social status that arises only through murder” (Keller 73).Although Tom briefly enjoys his newly acquired status and identity, “at the same time he can never relax for fear of discovery: the ‘wholeness’ of his new identity is therefore illusory” (Street 45). Tom’s yearning to become a wealthy, respected member of a higher class has caused him to commit murder and play multiple roles just in order to maintain that status and its privileges. While a rich lifestyle seemed like a positive thing to Tom initially, the fame and notoriety of this new position has now fully inverted only to attract negative attention to Tom. At the opening of the film, both the New York City streets and Tom’s home were crowded and confining while the Italian landscape was liberating; but as the Italian police investigate Tom, who is now posing as Dickie, Italy suddenly becomes very claustrophobic as Minghella centers his scenes around dark indoor locales, narrow alleyways, and shooting through grates and fences to signify Tom’s ensnarement. As Tom is investigated more and more by the authorities, he is now cast as “the traditional tragic overreacher, the individual who aspires above his place in the social and cosmological hierarchy, a place to which he was not born” (Keller 71). While Tom is trapped in Italy and forced to continue his transformations between identities, he meets Peter Smith-Kingsley, an openly gay man with whom Tom can somewhat unwind; “With Peter there is no need for Tom to wear elaborate, initialed clothing in order to feel secure” (Street 47). And although Kingsley encourages Tom to “be himself”, Tom is never fully able to act on this request. Due to the circumstances, “Tom’s stability with Peter is then only as secure as the moment and Tom is never able to shake off Dickie’s shadow” (Street 48). As Tom succeeds in fooling the authorities and even Herbert Greenleaf into believing that Dickie has committed suicide, Minghella briefly allows the audience to believe that Tom will get away with the murders and the assuming of Dickie’s identity. As Tom and Peter Smith-Kingsley depart on a cruise in the final scene of the film, on the deck of the boat, Tom is staring off as Italy shrinks in the distance when he randomly runs into Meredith and her aunt. Because of the initial lie he told Meredith upon arriving to Italy about being a Greenleaf, Tom is now “faced with a bitter irony” (Keller 72)—because Meredith knows Tom as Dickie and Kingsley knows Tom as himself, Tom must not let the two meet and is forced to kill one of them in order to maintain his secret. Tom returns to his confined cabin and stands before Peter Smith-Kingsley: just before taking his life, Tom says: “You know, I thought I’d rather be a fake somebody, than a real nobody.” In Minghella’s version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, both the audience and the characters within the drama never fully see Tom as a unified individual with a concrete identity. Tom’s aspirations to escape from his lower class service-based lifestyle to that of a respected upper class member of society are ultimately inverted when he is trapped by the police in Italy and his only means of continuing his new way of life is by committing murder and acting out various roles. Minghella highlights “the mutability of identity”, particularly by the contrasts of costuming and setting within the story itself (Street 35). While Tom Ripley searches for his identity along with the supporting characters and audience members, Minghella suggests that the search of a definitive self is perhaps futile.Works CitedBarry, Peter. “Post-structuralism and Deconstruction.” Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Third Edition. Ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 2009. 60-73. Alden Library Electronic Course Reserves.Keller, James R. “‘Naught’s Had, All’s Spent’: Shakespeare, Queer Rage, and the Talented Mr. Ripley.” Queer (Un)Friendly Film and Television. Ed. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2002. 68-81. Alden Library Electronic Course Reserves.Street, Sarah. “The Talented Mr. Ripley: Costuming Identity.” Costume and Cinema – Dress Codes in Popular Film. Ed. London: Wallflower P, 2002. 35-53. Alden Library Electronic Course Reserves.

Deception & Identity In Othello and The Talented Mr Ripley

Identity is crucial in understanding our values and morals and is shaped by societal expectations and the choices we make. Thus, it is ultimately an individual’s choice to relinquish temptations of deception, in which often eventuates to the corruption of an individual’s moral framework. Identity and deception are interrelated concepts that are evident in Othello, composed by William Shakespeare, and The Talented Mr Ripley, directed by Anthony Minghella. Therefore, a deeper understanding of deception and identity emerges from considering the parallels between the texts.

The social concerns of a society can ultimately impact upon an individual’s identity. The principal social concern during the Elizabethan era was the introduction of ‘blacks’ into the predominantly white society. To convey these concerns, Shakespeare deliberately positions the protagonist as an outsider. Othello is a well-respected general with a strong identity; however, his success is constantly undermined through racial rejection. This is particularly evident in Iago’s racist and animal-based epithets about Othello, such as “the old black ram” in which creates imagery of the devil and creates the perception that Othello is in conflict with his own identity. “Far more fair than black” explores that this conflict has eventuated from his acceptance in society due to his strong moral framework, yet his rejection due to his race. Therefore, by positioning Othello as an outsider, the audience can understand and appreciate the depth of racism and its impact on Othello’s identity.

Both Othello and Tom are individuals that have experienced rejection in a world that was undergoing a turbulent social upheaval. Throughout the 1950s, there were distinguished social classes, and teenagers began rejecting the traditional values. Similarly to Othello, in The Talented Mr Ripley, the composer deliberately positions the protagonist, Tom, as a marginalized outsider. This is represented in the scene where Tom performs a piano sonata, alone, in the dark, in the theatre. The long camera shot emphasizes his isolation. When Tom is caught, he immediately stops playing as he is aware that his identity presents an insignificant worker. Thus, through examining the parallels between the texts, both Tom and Othello are positioned as marginalized outsiders to result in a deeper understanding of how societal expectations can impact and conflict with an individual’s identity.

Deception is often used to manipulate and acquire power in which an individual may not be entitled to. Iago consciously uses methods of deception for achieving his ambitions to acquire a higher social position, in which comes in conflict with the Elizabethan societal expectations. “Make the net, that shall enmesh them all… I am not what I am.” Iago’s ambition to establish a deceptive identity was revealed in this excerpt in his soliloquy. The accumulation of the imagery of ‘nets’ conjures images of Iago’s manipulative plans. The paradoxical excerpt substantiates Iago’s fake identity and contradicts the repetitive references of “honest Iago”. Thus, the juxtaposition creates dramatic irony and suggests that a lack of morals is required to operate the complex levels of deception. Therefore, Iago manipulates power to establish a deceptive identity, in order to achieve his ambition in which conflicts with societal expectations.

Similarly, in The Talented Mr Ripley, Tom uses deception to achieve his ambitions in which challenges the emerging societal values. “I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.” Dicky’s materialistic identity was a representation of the identity that Tom was not entitled to and thus, it was Tom’s ambition to fake Dicky’s identity. The dialogue and the sorrowful tone indicates Tom’s agitated mind. Tom’s deception was established through an accident; however, it eventuated into deliberate deceptive choices in which guided him to material gain, yet also corrupted his moral framework. Two striking contrasts between Iago and Tom, is that Iago is deceptive from the opening of the play and Iago manipulates people by “enmeshing them all”. Therefore, through the examination of the texts, a deeper understanding emerges about the establishment of deceptive identities to achieve an individual’s ambition.

Self-deception is the process of believing misleading information about ourselves. Self-deception is particularly evident in the way Othello perceives himself after the murder. “That’s he that was Othello; here I am.” Othello refers to himself in the third person to indicate that he has lost and corrupted his moral framework and identity. To justify his actions of murder to himself, he uses the expression “it was cause, it was the cause, my soul”, as he cannot bear the consequences of his dishonorable actions. To assist with this and to also persuade the other characters, he uses high modality language, to justify that it was his ‘honorable’ duty and responsibility to murder his whore wife. Therefore, it is through self-deception that Othello deceives and corrupts his moral framework.

Self-deception is also evident in the character of Tom Ripley. “Don’t you just take the past and put it in a room in the basement, and lock the door and just never go in there? That’s what I do.” Tom expresses the notion of isolating the past as a method of protecting his deceptive actions from consuming his fake identity. This also reveals his sociopathic behavior. The use of the close-up camera shot of Tom’s face in conjunction with the diegetic music, a grave and sorrowful piece, suggests that Tom’s sense of unreality has eventuated to the acceptance of his deceptive deeds. This is similar to when Othello refers to himself in the third person in which indicates the recognition of the corruption of his identity. Therefore, through examining the parallels, both Othello and Tom use self-deception as a way for Tom, to forget, or for Othello, to justify his actions.

In conclusion, a deeper understanding of the interrelated concepts, deception and identity, emerges from considering the parallels between the two texts, Othello and The Talented Mr Ripley. Othello and Tom are positioned as outsiders to convey the rejection of those who do not abide by social expectations. Iago and Tom use deception as a means of manipulating power in order to gain a falsified identity.