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'Ripley' returns in black and white — and is so much better for it

The new Netflix adaptation of <em>The Talented Mr. Ripley</em> is brilliantly shot in black and white. It's a meticulously built piece of filmmaking and looking at it shot by shot is a profound pleasure.
Maurizio Lombardi
The new Netflix adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley is brilliantly shot in black and white. It's a meticulously built piece of filmmaking and looking at it shot by shot is a profound pleasure.

I was happy that I didn't know a lot about the Netflix series Ripley before I watched it. I had heard, vaguely, that there was a new adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, which has been adapted before, perhaps most famously in 1999's film of the same name. But I'd forgotten that the lead character, Tom Ripley, would be played by Andrew Scott, whom I have loved in everything from Fleabag (so sexy!) to Black Mirror (so creepy!). And I hadn't heard it was in black and white.

It's a brilliant idea, really, particularly because that 1999 film adaptation, directed by Anthony Minghella, is so beloved. And it's beloved in part because of its rich, luscious, sunshine-drenched color palette. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow as Dickie and Marge gleam gloriously on the Italian beach. The jazz club where Tom comes on stage for that fevered rendition of "Tu Vuo' Fa L'Americano" — the moment in which Tom becomes briefly, perfectly happy, and thus the moment that probably sets the rest of the tragedy in motion — glows with red and blue light. And even when Dickie finds himself in that little boat with Tom, he begins the scene reclining, with the sun shining on his face and warming his ankles, which are exposed by his rolled-up cuffs.

Perhaps not for that reason, but still to its great benefit, Ripley pulls hard in the opposite direction. This is chilled noir filmmaking, where deep shadows land in cheekbone hollows and light is carved into blocks by bars and blinds. Scott's eyes don't just look dark; they look like onyx marbles. It fits, because this version of Tom is not the kid who never meant to end up in a terrible situation and might have lived a perfectly normal life if not for his collision with Dickie's father, who believes Tom to be something he's not. This version of Tom is pure con artist from the opening frames, running small-time scams to rip people off for a little bit of money at a time, much of it specifically by pretending to be someone he's not.

Stephen Zaillian, the screenwriter and director, and Robert Elswit, the director of photography, are both Oscar winners. Zaillian won for writing Schindler's List; Elswit won for the cinematography on There Will Be Blood. (Elswit also was the cinematographer for Michael Clayton, which makes perhaps the most direct comparison not to the particular look of Ripley, but to its impeccable tension and dread.) They collaborate here and create a meticulously built piece of filmmaking that references classic noir and Hitchcock as well as Italian cinema greats, and just looking at it shot by shot is a profound pleasure.

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley.
Philippe Antonello / Netflix
Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley.

I read a comment the other day that said there's no reason to make anything in black and white now that color exists. Nothing, this comment alleged, has ever been better in black and white than it would have been in color — black and white was used by necessity, and to use it by choice is an affectation. But this, of course, is extraordinarily silly. Black and white photography, perhaps because it's become so rare in television and film, positions a piece relative to particular immovable cultural artifacts. If The Talented Mr. Ripley makes you think of Hitchcock's splashy mid century Technicolor, Ripley will perhaps invoke Psycho instead. It asks different things of the viewer, too. For people accustomed to watching in color, it shifts the focus of the visuals away from color to shapes and light.

But more fundamentally, the fact that an "advancement" is more rigorously representative of reality does not make it artistically superior. Yes, the real world is in color for most people. But the real world also takes place in real time, and that doesn't make editing a regrettable compromise. Reality is full of the boring and the mediocre; fiction is not meant to precisely copy it. Color photography can be done well or badly, thoughtfully or thoughtlessly. Black and white is the same. There is an interplay between light and architecture in Ripley, for instance, that would not be nearly as effective in color. Also, this is a story with some awful violence, and a scene of violence that does without the red blood that has been used and overused to the point of numbness is not any less brutal. It just moves the focus to other things — in this case, very often, that's the logistics of handling dead bodies and murder scenes.

In the very first scene you'll see in Ripley, Tom is moving a body down a flight of stairs. Were the scene in color, it might be overwhelmed by the sight of blood. In black and white, it is dominated by a thump-thump-thump, and by the sickening slackness of the body's uncontrolled limbs. Color would not enhance the dark corners of the story; it would in fact distract from them.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.