Social-climbing killer Tom Ripley is one of the most memorable characters in all of fiction, one who has been memorialized on the silver screen several times. The genius behind his creation, Patricia Highsmith, was a well-known, successful writer at the very beginning of her career, when her debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), was optioned by Alfred Hitchcock for his masterful 1951 film of the same name.
Highsmith was a lesbian whose novel Carol (originally titled, The Price of Salt) was one of the very few to feature a hopeful ending for its same-sex couple. Highsmith published the book under a pseudonym because of the prejudices of the time, and her cageyness about her life has left many of her fans interested in learning more about her.
Loving Highsmith, a 2022 documentary by Swiss director Eva Vitija, uses archival footage, Highsmith’s letters and diary entries, and filmed interviews with some of the writer’s lovers and relatives to try to get into the mind and heart of this artist and the times during which she lived.
Most of Highsmith’s best-known fiction trafficks in violence, but the author seemed a little baffled that she was labeled a crime writer. To her, the stories just formed quietly from quick impressions. For example, she said that the idea for Ripley came to her when she observed a young man walking on a beach from her high window in Positano, Italy. To develop a character as complex and compelling as Ripley from such a small seed reveals the extent of Highsmith’s powerful imagination.
In her early adulthood, Highsmith lived life to the fullest, having brief affairs with many lovers and traveling the world. In middle age, she fell in love with a married woman and bought a house near London to be near her. The end of that affair seems to have marked a downward slope in her personal life, as she pursued more permanent relationships that never lasted. She was planning a fourth Ripley book when she died in 1995 at the age of 74.
Vitija makes interesting use of film clips from The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Carol (2015), and The American Friend (1977) to show parallels with Highsmith’s life and work, and her homosexuality and attitudes toward it are given abundant coverage. The insertion of rodeo footage seems to suggest Highsmith’s first six years living in Texas formed her character, as the author said herself, but I didn’t see any strong connection and felt the footage was filler to make the presentation more visually interesting.
Certain aspects of her life could have used more illumination, particularly a more in-depth look at her professional activities, as well as more information about the rejecting mother she was psychologically tied to and the stepfather whose last name she bears. On the whole, however, Loving Highsmith should be well received by fans of her work.