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Theatre: Getting away with murder

Patricia Highsmith's thrillers inspired Hitchcock, Minghella and now Phyllis Nagy. Why?
Death does wonders for an author's career. That may sound horribly cynical, but in the case of Patricia Highsmith, it's true in every sense. Following her death in 1995, adaptors have been snapping up her 25 or so novels. Yet while she was alive, death or, more specifically, murder stalked her thrillingly obsessional prose which pulls off the astonishing trick of holding readers in a vice-like grip of apprehension and terror while simultaneously shattering all the rules of crime fiction.

Graham Greene praised her unique vision of "a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger ... It is not the world as we once believed we knew it, but it is frighteningly more real to us than the house next door". That goes a long way towards explaining her popularity with filmmakers. In the late Seventies Wim Wenders tried to buy the rights to all her future work. Notoriously canny, she refused, probably because she had little time for his 1977 film The American Friend which conflated her novels Ripley Under Ground and Ripley's Game and featured a wholly miscast Dennis Hopper. Not to mention the fact that she'd been stung before.

Alfred Hitchcock read her first novel Strangers on a Train upon its publication in 1949 and instructed his agent to buy the rights without mentioning his name. It cost him just $7,500. He paid Raymond Chandler $2,500 a week to adapt it - and then slung out virtually everything he'd written. The film resurrected his then sagging career and has remained near the top of the Hitchcock heap ever since. (A new print is being shown at the London Film Festival in November.) It further inspired two radio versions, a dreadful remake with the giveaway B-movie title Once You Kiss A Stranger and the Danny De Vito comedy-thriller Throw Momma From the Train.

Although Hitchcock's film did Highsmith no harm, it is a bastardisation of her book. The beautifully constructed theme of guilt chimed perfectly with Hitchcock's obsessions, but as she said to playwright Phyllis Nagy: "They didn't make the film of the book". She's right. In the original, two men trade murders to make them motiveless and undetectable and get away with it. In the film, only one character is murdered and the killer is caught. That turns the men into simple opposites, good and bad, thereby removing all the compelling moral complexity which is the key to Highsmith's writing.

And, until now, that has been the story with subsequent dramatisations including Chabrol's strangely vapid version of The Cry of the Owl which is about a peeping Tom, who makes himself known to the object of his desire, and reduces the book to an arid series of plot manoeuvres.

There are rumours of a forthcoming stage adaptation of Strangers on a Train and the attachment of gay director Sean Mathias to the project will probably flesh out its underlying homoeroticism, a central feature in every one of the books. That unsettling tension is most clearly expressed through the character of Tom Ripley who appears in five Highsmith novels, beginning with the best, The Talented Mr Ripley (1965), which Anthony Minghella is now shooting with Matt Damon in the title role playing opposite Jude Law. Ripley will resurface via Rupert Everett in Mike Newell's movie Ripley's Game, but Nagy has got there first. She's now writing a film of Found in the Street for John Malkovich, has already delivered the script for Channel Four's film of Highsmith's lesbian novel Carol and tomorrow night her stage version of The Talented Mr Ripley - starring John Padden - begins previewing in Watford.

Apart from her skills as a dramatist, Nagy is the perfect choice. She met Highsmith in 1987 when she was a researcher on The New York Times. At that point all she'd written was an early draft of Butterfly Kiss but "everyone knew I wanted to be a playwright. My editor wanted a piece on Greenwood, a famous cemetery in Brooklyn where, among others, Lola Montez, the Steinway family and various gangsters are buried. They wanted a well-known crime writer to walk round it." When Ruth Rendell proved unavailable, Nagy suggested Highsmith.

On the long ride out to Greenwood, Highsmith only broke the wordless journey by grilling her with three terse questions: Did Nagy like O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard? "We took the tour in silence and had a guided tour of the crematorium and were invited to put our hands in the still warm oven. We were treated to the gigantic blender full of human bones ... it was a pretty ghastly experience. We got outside and it was about 11am and she took out a hip flask of scotch and said: `I don't know about you but I need a drink.' It was like a challenge, so I took it. Next she invited me for lunch, which consisted of nothing but Budweiser, and from that moment we were fast friends."

Nagy maintains that these literally unputdownable page-turners are remarkable for their absence of plot. "You could tell the basic Ripley story in 60 pages: a man goes to Italy to bring back a friend, winds up involved in murder and we wait to see if he gets away with it. The rest is all about guilt, its absence and its effects." She acknowledges the narrative devices which propel the reader forward but believes it's the imagery which holds the drama together and that provides the structure for her adaptation. "Ripley is dominated by one image of water after the next. Stringing them together, it's literally water which pulls him from New York to Venice."

Rene Clement captured some of that in his partially successful film Plein Soleil (1960) which, despite skewing the central relationship into a heterosexual love-triangle, broke box-office records for a foreign language film on its recent re-release. When it was made, Highsmith declared its star, Alain Delon, to be "my perfect Ripley", an opinion she revised when she saw another actor playing her seductive, sexually and morally ambiguous hero for the purposes of a South Bank Show profile.

The actor was Jonathan Kent, now better known as the joint artistic director of the Almeida. As a 12-year-old he'd seen Plein Soleil three times and then devoured the novels. Upon meeting Highsmith, he too became a friend. "She was a curious woman, in both senses. Extraordinarily contained. It was difficult to predict her reaction to anything."

He points out that Ripley draws on The Ambassadors by Henry James, a writer she loved. "He wrote about the corruption of the new world by the old: terrible things happen to Americans in Europe.

"Ripley mirrors its plot about the scion of a WASP family who goes to Europe with people being sent to get him back." However, he agrees with Nagy that the plotting is utterly secondary. "They have a flat narration of event. She absolutely gives you the driving sense of `what happens next?' but her potency is that she doesn't get emotionally involved. The tone is uninflected. That's what makes it good dramatic material."

For Nagy, Highsmith's deceptively simple style masks a complexity which comes from a pure interest in morality which doesn't take a position. "How does one murder? She is clearly struggling to come to terms with what that means. Her pathological repulsion towards ordinary human behaviour and an ambivalence about sexuality provides a clear, chilling path for the reader. All the characters have a great yearning and a curious attitude towards relationships: `I want it ... but don't give it to me, ever.' The moment they get it, it's no good."

Ripley's central preoccupation with impersonation might be seen as unstageable, but Nagy disagrees and focuses upon the internal element. "Basically, it works via Ripley talking to himself.

"Dramatisations have to pick up on these undramatised episodes. It's not about plot, it's about getting into the corners of the book which suggest opening out without inventing."

Her technically audacious but intensely faithful adaptation is similar to the idea of a set of musical variations. "There's a theme you have to go with and then you build the variations from references in the text and you recreate the novelistic structure through fluidity. However good, most times when you watch an adaptation you feel you're watching a novel on stage. The challenge is to make it into a play."

`The Talented Mr Ripley' previews at Watford Palace Theatre from 2 Oct to 24 Oct (01923-225671)