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The Five ‘Talented Mr. Ripley’ Dramas (Ranked)

Which Ripley is best — Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper, Alain Delon, or Andrew Scott in the new Netflix series 'Ripley'?

spinner image Andrew Scott, John Malkovich, Matt Damon and other stars who have starred in various Ripley movies and TV shows
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Courtesy of Netflix; Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX; Fine Line/Everett Collection; Miramax/Everett Collection (2))

After Alfred Hitchcock filmed her novel Strangers on a Train in 1951 (his own favorite Hitchcock flick), Patricia Highsmith spent her movie money touring Europe, envying the rich and gathering impressions for a series of bestsellers about the talented Tom Ripley, a con artist whose cold heart Highsmith identified with. She sometimes signed her letters “Tom,” and said she felt like he was writing the books, she was just typing. In five novels published from 1955 to 1991, Ripley lives high, kills eight people, eludes the law and feels zero guilt.

Four major movies feature Ripley, and now there’s a superb Netflix miniseries, Ripley, that’s the best of the bunch. Each Ripley has his virtues, and the stories have different enough plots that you can watch them all and compare how they express the lesson of Highsmith’s books, which her editor Gary Fisketjon, 70, summed up: “Don’t be offended if someone insults your taste — just bash their heads in with an ashtray.” Here’s how each Ripley drama rates, in order of excellence:

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⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Ripley (2024)

Steven Zaillian, 71, wrote a previous black-and-white masterpiece about an utterly mysterious man involved with murder, only he was preventing it, not committing it: Schindler’s List. Writer-director Zaillian does the best job yet of doing what Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley did: get you inside the head of penniless grifter Ripley (Andrew Scott, the “hot priest” in Fleabag and Moriarty in Sherlock), who is hired by a rich American to go to Italy’s most spectacular locations to persuade his boorish wastrel son Dickie (Johnny Flynn) to quit living la dolce vita and come home. A gifted liar and improviser, Ripley more or less convinces Dickie that they’re old acquaintances. As he starts to take over Dickie’s very identity, and then take his life, we find ourselves kind of rooting for him to get away with it.

The eight episodes give Zaillian room to make Ripley’s killings and cover-ups seem more spontaneous and realistic than the movies do, and its cinematography is even more stunning and imaginative than any of the films (which are in color). Scott knocks it out of the park, making Ripley partly understandable, yet also like an alien being keenly observing humans he plans to devour (though he’s too much a gourmet to be a cannibal). Dakota Fanning is marvelous as Dickie’s girlfriend Marge, who’s skeptical of Ripley but winds up his frenemy. It’s fun to see John Malkovich, 70, who played Ripley in 2002’s Ripley’s Game, as the killer’s weird partner in crime, Reeves Minot. “He had the manners and the good grace not to sigh when I was acting,” Scott told GMA News.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Purple Noon (1960)

Highsmith loved Alain Delon’s performance as Ripley in the first movie version: He’s impossibly good-looking, stylish, remote, blazing with charisma, and sinister to the toes of his pricey shoes. Like the Netflix series, it’s a slow build that ratchets up the tension with consummate skill, and the glorious color makes you want drop everything and vacation in Italy immediately. This Marge (Marie Laforêt) has far less gumption than Fanning’s Marge — she’s Dickie’s doormat. He nastily tries to toy with Ripley, too, unaware of the danger, and Ripley makes a play for Marge too. The scenes of the three on Dickie’s sailboat, flirting, lovemaking, feuding, are like a masterful chess game — and we know who always wins Ripley’s games. But unlike all other Ripley stories, he gets his comeuppance in a clever way. Highsmith hated that, since Ripley lived on in book after book, but it’s the perfect ending for this movie.

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⭐⭐⭐⭐☆ The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

The most famous, five-Oscar-nominated adaptation, an even more gorgeous European travelogue than Purple Noon, also has a killer jazz score and the finest cast of all. Matt Damon’s Ripley brings the character’s ambiguously gay subtext right out of the closet, and (horrors!) even gives him a heart — he sometimes weeps in mid-murder (mostly in self-pity, but still). Jude Law’s Dickie is a magnetic narcissist who so mistreats Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), you’re not just rooting for Ripley, but for Dickie’s demise. Philip Seymour Hoffman outdoes everyone as Dickie’s slimy, womanizing rich pal Freddy, who sees right through Ripley’s act — evil knows evil, though he finds out Ripley is much better at being evil. Cate Blanchett is nearly as great as a new character who wasn’t in Highsmith’s novel: Meredith, a rich, vulnerable American who falls for Ripley — thinking he is Dickie, two-timing her with Marge. Meredith adds an enriching new wrinkle to Highsmith’s tale.

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spinner image John Malkovich and Chiara Caselli holding each other in bed in Ripley’s Game
(Left to right) John Malkovich and Chiara Caselli in "Ripley’s Game."
Fine Line/Everett Collection

⭐⭐⭐☆☆ Ripley’s Game (2002)

John Malkovich convincingly renders Ripley as the world’s most cultivated grownup in this adaptation of the third novel in the series. The plot isn’t as fascinating as The Talented Mr. Ripley’s tale of heisted identity, so the reason to see it is Malkovich’s slithery performance. Ripley takes vengeance on a naïve man who offends him at a party, by persuading him to do a contract killing that gets the mob on his tail. The victim is a crime rival of Ripley’s gangster associate Reeves Minot (Ray Winstone, 67, The Gentlemen, Sexy Beast). The dupe does it because he thinks he’s dying and wants to provide for his wife. Malkovich’s suave, velvet-voiced cosmopolitanism clashes nicely with Winstone’s gravel-voiced Brit gangster vibe. When the dupe asks, “Who are you?” Ripley reveals that it’s all a game to him: “I am a creation. I’m a gifted improviser.”

⭐⭐⭐☆☆ The American Friend (1977)

Malkovich’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game made Ripley a Malkovich character, and Dennis Hopper makes him a cowboy-hat-wearing, Bob Dylan-quoting Dennis Hopper kind of guy. “Those aren’t my words,” complained Highsmith of Hopper’s quippy, trippy talk, but she came to admire his spacey, inscrutable brio as Ripley, an art forger and murderer in Hamburg. Director Wim Wenders centers the film not on Ripley but on the pawn roped into the contract killing (soulful, doleful Bruno Ganz, who played an angel in Wenders’ masterpiece Wings of Desire). It’s a very loose, drifty adaptation that turns Highsmith’s story into a meditation on the collision of American and German culture, with haunting results. Ripley’s criminal associates are played by revered film directors: Nicholas Ray as a forger and Sam Fuller, Gerard Blain and Jean Eustache as gangsters.

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