It is 1950s New York City and Tom Ripley is a young man struggling to make a living, relying on his talents to get by. While at a recital where he plays the piano, Tom is approached by wealthy ship builder Herbert Greenleaf, who mistakenly thinks he went to Princeton, due to the borrowed Princeton blazer Tom is wearing. Greenleaf recruits Ripley to go to Italy to persuade his rebellious son Dickie to return home to the United States. In return for this he will pay Ripley one thousand dollars. Despite never having met Dickie and never having attended Princeton, Ripley accepts.
Upon arriving in Europe, Ripley meets Meredith Logue, a young, wealthy heiress to a textile empire. During their brief conversation Ripley impulsively introduces himself as Dickie. Shortly thereafter he fakes a chance encounter with the real Dickie and his fiancé Marge Sherwood, attempting to convince Dickie that they met at Princeton. Subsequently he visits Dickie and Marge and discloses that Dickie's father paid him to persuade Dickie to come home. Dickie is furious and suggests Ripley return to America to inform his father he has no intention of going home. Rather than doing this, Ripley insinuates himself into Dickie's life, citing a mutual love of jazz. The two devise a scheme to con additional money from Mr. Greenleaf by mailing regular letters stating that Dickie is vacillating and can likely be persuaded to return if Ripley remains in Italy and continues to apply pressure on him.
While on an excursion to Rome, Ripley meets Freddie Miles, a friend of Dickie's who barely conceals his contempt for Ripley. A local Italian girl whom Dickie had gotten pregnant drowns herself after he refuses to support her financially. This precipitates a downward spiral for Dickie and leads him to resent Ripley's constant presence, which he finds suffocating. Ripley is becoming sexually obsessed with Dickie and also growing attached to the high-flying lifestyle his friendship with Dickie affords him. Before Ripley returns to America Dickie invites Ripley on a sailing trip to San Remo where he is house hunting. While they are at sea Ripley suggests that he should come back to Italy the following year and become Dickie's housemate. Dickie informs Ripley he is going to marry his fiancé Marge, which enrages Ripley so much he lashes out at him and hits him repeatedly with an oar, killing him. Panicking, Ripley tries to conceal the murder by scuttling the boat with Dickie's body on board then swims to shore himself.
When the hotel concierge mistakes him for Dickie, Ripley realizes that he can assume Dickie's identity. He forges his signature, alters his passport and begins funding his lifestyle using Dickie's trust fund. He writes to Marge using Dickie's typewriter and convinces her he has left her. He creates an elaborate charade that maintains both his own and Dickie's identities, checking into two separate hotels under their respective names, and passing messages between hotel staff members to make it appear that Dickie is still living. The situation becomes all the more complicated when Meredith Logue re-emerges, still under the false impression that he is Dickie.
Ripley rents a large apartment and spends Christmas alone having gifted himself many expensive presents. Meanwhile Freddie tracks Ripley down, fully expecting to find Dickie. Upon arrival, he is suspicious that the apartment is not furnished in Dickie's style. Ripley has adopted Dickie's hairstyle and mannerisms. As Freddie is leaving the apartment, he meets the building's landlady, who says that she loves to hear piano music coming from the apartment where Dickie is supposed to live. Freddie knows that Dickie does not play piano and returns to the apartment to confront Ripley. Ripley attacks Freddie and kills him by hitting him over the head with a heavy statue. He carries the body to Freddie's car and drives out to the woods where he leaves Freddie's body on the ground and abandons the car.
Freddie's corpse is quickly discovered, and Ripley's life becomes a cat-and-mouse game. He must now avoid both the police and Dickie's friends. He escapes capture and clears his name by faking a suicide note allegedly from Dickie and addressed to him. He moves to Venice and rents an apartment in his own name. Although Dickie's father still trusts Ripley, he hires a private detective called Alvin McCarron to investigate his son's death. Marge, having always suspected that Ripley was involved in Dickie's death, confronts him after finding Dickie's rings in Ripley's bathroom. Ripley seems to be close to murdering Marge, but is interrupted by their mutual friend Peter Smith-Kingsley who enters the apartment using the key Ripley gave him. McCarron, after unearthing some unsavory details about Dickie's past, tells Ripley that he is dropping the investigation. McCarron will not be sharing his findings with the police and asks Ripley to do the same. In return Greenleaf intends to transfer a significant portion of Dickie's trust fund into Ripley's name. Marge is angry about this and accuses Ripley of involvement in Dickie's death before she is forcibly removed by Greenleaf and McCarron.
Ripley and Peter, now in a romantic relationship, go on a cruise together only to discover that Meredith Logue is also on board. Ripley realizes that he will not be able to prevent them from communicating and also realizes that Meredith will tell Peter he has been pretending to be Dickie. He cannot murder Meredith, as she is with her family so he strangles Peter to death, sobbing whilst he does so. He returns to his cabin where he sits alone.
The Real Tom Ripley? Origins of Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr. Ripley
A couple of years ago, in this post on The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) – the third novel in the five-book Ripliad – I noted that Patricia Highsmith identified with Tom Ripley more than any other character she created. In her guidebook Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966) she wrote of Tom's debut, The Talented Mr. Ripley(1955), "No book was easier for me to write, and I often had the feeling Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing," while later novels in the Ripliad, The Boy Who Followed Ripley among them, are littered with opinions and asides that are ostensibly Tom's but in fact recognisably those of his creator. Highsmith was even known to sign letters to friends, "Tom".
But Highsmith drew on other sources besides herself in her formulation of Tom Ripley. Andrew Wilson, in his 2003 biography of the author, Beautiful Shadow, points to Julian Green's 1947 body-swapping fantasy If I Were You and Henry James's 1903 novel The Ambassadors as two literary inspirations for Tom and The Talented Mr. Ripley. He also highlights a real life inspiration: a Herald Tribune news story that Highsmith read in 1954 about a man "presumed dead after the discovery of a charred body" who "was spotted drinking after his 'funeral' and... arrested". But there's another real life inspiration for Tom, one that Highsmith herself wrote about in an essay for the Winter 1989 issue (#29) of literary journal Granta.
Titled Scene of the Crime, the essay recaps the events of The Talented Mr. Ripley before turning to "the place where Ripley was born," as Highsmith puts it, "in the sense of being a story-less image in my memory". The place is Positano on the Amalfi Coast, which Highsmith visited for the first time in late summer 1951. (Wilson's biography contradicts this, stating that Highsmith first visited Positano in late summer 1949.) Emerging onto the balcony of her hotel one quiet morning Highsmith "noticed a solitary young man in shorts and sandals with a towel flung over his shoulder, making his way along the beach from right to left. He was looking downward... I could just see that his hair was straight and darkish." She continues:
There was an air of pensiveness about him, maybe unease. And why was he alone? He did not look like the athletic type who would take a cold swim alone at an early hour. Had he quarrelled with someone? What was on his mind? I never saw him again. I did not even write anything in my cahier about him. What would there have been to say? He looked like a thousand other American tourists in Europe that summer. I had the feeling that he was American.
The image of the solitary young man returned to Highsmith months later on her second trip to Europe when an idea for a story occurred to her, "...of a young American drifter being sent to Europe to bring another American back home, if possible". (Highsmith admits at this point the similarity of her notion to The Ambassadors.) Yet when she actually came to write The Talented Mr. Ripley, she was "not sure that the Positano beach image with the solitary figure even came to my mind", although Positano itself made it into the novel – and onto the dust jacket of the 1957 British first edition – as Mongibello. It was only "years later [when] journalists asked me, 'Where did you get the idea of Ripley from?' and as I racked my mind to answer, to recall exactly where, [that] the solitary figure on the beach returned to me, and I described his appearance – as I had seen it from two hundred metres or more".
Highsmith writes in closing:
The stretch of the Positano beach, which has not changed much except that it may now hold a few more boats or people, has no particular fascination for me. Ripley was not really born there, was just an image for me, and needed another element to spring to life: imagination, which came many months later.