The Talented Mr Ripley
After his runaway Oscar success with The English Patient, Anthony Minghella comes back with something a little bit sexy, a little bit breezy and pure pulp. And it works. The trio of ex-pat Americans, played by Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law, are certainly not likeable characters, but it's all the better to make you squirm.
Matt Damon is at his best as the glibly charming but sociopathic Tom Ripley. A down-at-heel, blue-collar boy with aspirations, he quickly ingratiates himself whilst on a European adventure tour with Dickie Greenleaf, a rich ex-pat played by Jude Law, and his girlfriend, Marge, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Against the backdrop of the mesmerizing Italian coast, Tom's friendship with Dickie emerges as a dangerous obsession with rustlings of homosexuality, and Tom's stomach-churning manipulations become almost unbearable. Once we get to the murder scene on the boat, we already know that Dickie's demise is inevitable, and the image of the sea submerging Dickie's body becomes an apt parallel to Tom's desire to absolutely consume his prey.
Dead Calm is an effective, tense thriller which makes the most of its seascape setting. The key image of two ships sailing towards each other generates powerful emotions, making us acutely conscious that help will not be on its way: in this vast, lonely ocean, the characters will be left alone to fight a dangerous game of psychological strategy.
Nonetheless, it's been accused of being cheesy, flaccid and crass, so why has it made it to this list? Quite simply, the acting is great. Despite tasteless nightmare scenes with dead babies, Billy Zane, Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman play their roles straight and they play them well. Zane, as the unhinged and improbably named Hughie, is classic psycho fodder with his deranged sexiness and wild eyes. Everyone loves a good villain, and Zane plays up to this role superbly, whilst Kidman, married to Neill, positively exudes hatred for him. The tension between the two is electric when they are left alone on the couple's small sailing boat and Neill goes off to Zane's boat. Meanwhile, Sam Neill plays an effective (and slightly pudgy) counterpoint to Zane as a well-meaning but foolish husband.
Note that Orson Welles attempted to adapt the 1963 novel by Charles Williams, but filming was besieged with difficulties and Welles was finally forced to abandon the project with the death of his leading man, Laurence Harvey. However, footage from the unfinished version, known as “The Deep” can be seen in the documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band.
Rebecca de Winter's whispers from beyond the grave dominate the lives all who live at the ill-fated Manderley on the Cornish coast. Far from being a happy newly-wed with his young and gauche new wife, Max de Winter still has the silken noose of Rebecca's charm around his neck, while Mrs Danvers, the creepy housekeeper, still carries a blazing torch for her former mistress.
The new Mrs de Winter, played by Joan Fontaine, is understandably in awe of Mrs Danvers and each day Mrs Danvers helpfully highlights the differences between her and the entrancing Rebecca, tearing an ever bigger gulf between husband and wife. The tension reaches a peak when Mrs de Winter is tricked by Mrs Danvers in to dressing up in the very same costume Rebecca had worn for the annual ball the year before.
After a few hints, we finally discover that Max, superbly played by Laurence Olivier, and his former wife's relationship was not as it seemed, and they loathed each other from the very start of their marriage. Rebecca, taunting and cruel, told him she was pregnant by another man, and the powerless Max would have to raise the child as his own. Max saw red and battered her to death in the boathouse, where she liked to escape, and made it look like suicide by taking her out on the rowing boat and knocking holes in the bottom. When the body is found a year later, an inquest is opened to find out if it really was suicide.
Hitchcock hardly needs an introduction, but this film is an unusual departure for the director as he teams up with the Hollywood hero David O. Selznick of Gone with the Wind fame. It sounds like an unlikely partnership, but it works. Hitchcock's evocative treatment of an ominous mood, is elegantly dramatized by Selznick's sweeping vistas at key moments in the film, most notably at the end.