The film opens with images of Tom Ripley’s face, edited in splices as if to foreshadow his mysterious and fragmented identity. In voiceover Ripley says, “If I could just go back…If I could just rub everything out, starting with myself,” as a pair of hands playing a piano comes into frame. The camera moving upwards to reveal Tom Ripley playing the piano in the bright sunshine for a group of well-dressed recital-goers on a Manhattan rooftop. He is accompanying a classical soprano, who sings “Lullaby for Cain” by Sinead O’Connor. When she finishes everyone claps enthusiastically as the camera pans up to reveal a sprawling view of Central Park.
One of the attendees, Herbert Greenleaf, introduces himself to Tom Ripley after the song is over, telling him how much he enjoyed the recital, and introducing him to his wife, Emily. They notice Tom’s Princeton jacket and, assuming he went to Princeton, inquire about whether he knows their son Dickie. With a vague smile, Tom asks, “How is Dickie?” In the following shot, the vocalist and Tom are seen coming out of an elevator with Herbert Greenleaf and Emily, who is in a wheelchair. The Greenleafs tell Tom and the vocalist that they hope they will meet again, but Herbert dismissively suggests that Dickie prefers jazz, and that he has a saxophone. As Tom and the Greenleafs say goodbye, Mr. Greenleaf tells Tom, “we’ll see you at the shipyard,” and Tom says his goodbyes. Tom and the vocalist say their goodbyes, kissing each other on the cheek, while the Greenleafs see their parting and agree the two make a “darling couple.” In the next scene we see Tom Ripley acting as a restroom attendant at a Carnegie Hall, brushing the lint off the jackets of wealthy men who barely acknowledge him. The camera moves to hovering over Tom’s shoulder as he watches a classical recital through the velvet curtain in one of the boxes at Carnegie Hall. A woman notices him watching the recital through the curtain, one eye obscured, and he abruptly closes the curtain as the scene shifts to Tom in blue light playing the piano on the empty stage. A stagehand abruptly turns on the lights and Tom apologetically and anxiously leaves, self-conscious at having been found playing after hours.
Tom Ripley and Herbert walk along the waterfront, and Greenleaf informs Tom that Dickie, his son, has been living—much to his disapproval—south of Naples with a girlfriend, Marge. Marge is writing a book of some kind, and Greenleaf expresses his disappointment with what he perceives to be his son’s lazy and unambitious existence in Italy. Greenleaf cuttingly confides to Tom that his son’s talent is “spending his allowance.” He then asks if Tom would be willing to go to Italy to persuade his son to return to the United States for $1000. As Tom begins to say, “I have always wanted to go to Europe, sir, but—“ he is cut off by Mr. Greenleaf who shakes his hand and says “good,” refusing to take “no” for an answer. As Greenleaf gets in a car, frantic jazz music plays and Tom is left on the waterfront, about to embark on a life-changing journey abroad.
A closeup shot of the jazz record comes into focus, and the camera zooms out to reveal Tom wearing a sleep mask and testing himself on different jazz artists, educate himself for his impending trip. “My Funny Valentine” as sung by Chet Baker plays as Tom gets dressed, the sounds of yelling from fighting neighbors echoing through his dingy apartment. Tom wonders if the singer he is listening to is a man or a woman and he is startled when he hears the stomping and banging of his belligerent upstairs neighbors. In the next scene Tom polishes his shoes and, to his excitement, is able to identify Charlie Parker by ear. Having researched his subject effectively, and slipping Dickie Greenleaf’s yearbook entry into an address book, Tom sets off. A chauffeur sent by Mr. Greenleaf picks up Tom and, observing his humble apartment, remarks, “that 1000 bucks will come in handy.” The chauffeur tells Tom that he is going to have a good trip, because Dickie is good friends with the Cunards and that “the Greenleaf name opens a lot of doors.” Opera music plays as Tom’s ocean liner is shown embarking.
Having arrived in Italy, Tom catches the eye of a confident American woman, who is going through customs. As she stands next to him in line, she asks him, “What’s your secret?” When he asks her what she means she insists that while she has so much luggage, he has barely any, and she finds that humiliating. The woman introduces herself as Meredith Randall, and Tom, in yet another vague deception, lies and introduces himself as “Dickie Greenleaf.” As Tom walks away from the encounter, Meredith hurries after him, questioning more about his Greenleaf identity. Tom continues to play along, even though Meredith noticed that he was collecting his bags at the “R” stand. Rather than explain the truth, Tom continues to extrapolate the lie, explaining that he travels under his mother’s name because he's embarrassed of his wealth and privilege. Finding Tom’s explanation titillating and charming, Meredith admits that her name is not actually “Randall,” but “Logue…as in the textile Logue,” and the two relish their shared desire to obscure their identity.
Tom takes a bus to the town where Dickie is staying, and smiles as the bus winds along the coast of Southern Italy. Italian men sing a traditional song as Tom is deposited on the docks of a small village. Having settled in a place nearby, Tom teaches himself Italian and spies on Dickie and Marge using binoculars. The viewer watches the attractive couple jump off the deck of a sailboat through Tom’s binoculars. He pans the binoculars over to the sailboat, which is called “Bird,” recalling the nickname of the great jazz musician Charlie Parker whom Tom was researching earlier. Donning a neon green bathing suit and a pair of loafers, Tom seeks to stage a run-in with Dickie and Marge on the beach, approaching them as if they are old friends. Dickie, of course, does not remember Tom from college, but generously attributes his memory lapse to the fact that “Princeton’s like a fog, America’s like a fog,” and introduces Tom to Marge Sherwood. When Tom explains he is just passing through the area, Dickie is startled and amused to find that Tom is “so white,” without a tan. Tom makes a self-deprecating joke, which charms the couple, and Marge invites Tom over for lunch before he goes. Dickie says his goodbyes, while Dickie confides to Marge that he does not remember Tom from Princeton.
Tom walks up a steep street in the town and witnesses Dickie interacting with an Italian woman with whom is apparently having an affair. The woman climbs on the back of Dickie’s vespa, and they ride off, while Tom continues to watch with a look of disapproval on his face. Dickie arrives late to Marge’s house, and apologizes that he “just woke up” in spite of it being 4 o’clock. Dickie makes an excuse about having been out on the boat fishing with a friend and Marge remains visibly upset before revealing that Tom Ripley ate lunch with her at the house in his absence. Dickie still does not remember Tom when Tom enters and Marge tells Dickie that Tom has been telling her funny stories about his travels, that made her laugh so hard she “almost got a nosebleed.” Dickie apologizes to Marge before rather brusquely asking Tom to mix him a martini. Marge offers to do it instead, and in her absence, Dickie asks Tom what his talent is to which Tom replies, “forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody.” In the face of this somewhat alarming answer Dickie suggests that everyone is only allowed to have one talent, while Tom just listed three. When Dickie then asks him to do an impression, Tom does an impression of Dickie’s father complaining about him. Dickie is simultaneously thrilled and horrified by Tom’s impression, and Tom does his impression for Marge as well. Here Tom reveals to Dickie that he met his father in New York. In character as Herbert Greenleaf, Tom reveals the nature of his visit to Dickie: that he has been hired to bring Dickie back to the United States.
Walking through the streets of Mongibello, Dickie tells Tom that he is never returning to America, and even when Tom references his mother’s illness, Dickie insists that what is most infuriating to him is the way that his father uses his mother as manipulation to get him to come back, even though it is his father who wants him to come home. Angrily, Dickie tells Tom that his job is a lost cause. Later Marge waves to Tom while picking fruit from a tree, and Dickie tells Marge that Tom is leaving Mongibello. In the middle of their goodbyes, Tom’s bag breaks and Dickie and Marge help him pick up its contents, and Dickie is intrigued by Tom’s collection of jazz records. When Dickie teases Marge for thinking Glenn Miller and Perry Como are jazz, Tom strategically insists that “Bird”—Charlie Parker—is real jazz, and Dickie excitedly reveals to Tom that his sailboat is called “Bird.” Excited by their shared affinity for jazz, Dickie invites Tom to a jazz club in Naples, which Marge dismisses as “vile.”
The film quickly transitions into the swanky, smoke-filled and dimly lit jazz club, as Tom and Dickie take their seats to the fervent solo of a trumpet. An Italian woman comes and kisses Dickie in his seat at the club, to Tom’s surprise. Dickie and an Italian man sing “Tu Vuo’ Fa l’Americano” with the band onstage, and Tom watches delightedly. They invite Tom onstage and he sings along with the singer while Dickie plays the saxophone. Tom is evidently thrilled to be onstage, looking at Dickie with admiration, and Dickie kisses him on the cheek. Dickie types a letter about how Tom is haunting him until he agrees to return to New York, reading his writing aloud, which awakens a hungover Tom on the couch in front of his typewriter. Suggesting that Tom is now a double agent who will help him string his father along in believing that he will return home, Dickie suggests they buy a car with Tom’s earnings, to which Tom agrees, wide eyed and excited. Marge comes in and reminds Dickie that he cannot drive when he suggests they are going to buy a car, before insisting that they get an icebox, which Tom agrees with.
After Tom gets ready in the house, he walks over to the balcony where he witnesses Marge and Dickie talking about him. Marge asks Dickie if Tom is going to keep staying with them, and Dickie says he wants to keep Tom around because Tom makes him laugh. Tom smiles at their expression of appreciation of him and goes back inside and opens a box on a vanity, pulling out a gold watch and doing an impression of the two lovers into the mirror, an even more chilling version of the impressions that so delighted Dickie and Marge earlier. In the next shot, Dickie makes espresso for Marge and Tom and Tom admires his ring. Marge happily tells Tom that she found the ring in Naples, while Dickie tells him he would give him the ring if he had not promised to keep it on as a sign of his devotion to Marge. Tom tells the couple that he has to get a birthday present for his fiancé Frances, presumably referencing the soprano with whom he met the Greenleafs.
The beginning of the film introduces us to the rather ambiguous and unknowable figure of Tom Ripley, his aspirational and amoral motives, and the ways that class and privilege determine so many of the boundaries between characters in the film. Tom Ripley is an expert liar, at once innocent and sociopathic. All it takes for Tom to infiltrate the world of the Greenleafs is the donning of a Princeton jacket and a withholding evasiveness about his true identity. At times it feels as though the events of the film are happening to Tom rather than the result of his actions. Matt Damon’s wide-eyed performance aligns the viewer with Tom’s purest motivations—to fit in and move up in the world—while also abruptly revealing the insidious effects of his underhanded psychology.
Tom Ripley has a fluid relation to class from the start of the movie. While he feels at home at the rooftop recital, wearing a Princeton jacket that is not his, and speaking to the Greenleafs, he is barely scraping by in his service jobs and is in fact not the wealthy gentleman he appears to be. There is a discrepancy between how he looks and dresses and his class position. From the start, Tom Ripley is established as someone who is on the outside looking in, as exemplified by his watching the recital through the curtains of a private box. The chauffeur recognizes his station immediately when he suggests Greenleaf’s payment will go a long way, but no one else in the film perceives that Tom is any poorer than them. His presence at a fancy recital is what gets him mistaken for being a member of the Manhattan elite, and he does not nothing to dispel the assumption that he is from a wealthy background.
Indeed, music and its symbolic weight are important from the beginning of the film. When we first meet Tom he is playing the piano in a classical recital, and his first site of longing takes place watching a recital surreptitiously from the hallways at Carnegie Hall. He is a talented pianist, but instead of playing the piano at Carnegie Hall, he has to clean gentlemen’s coats as a bathroom attendant. Tom’s very first interaction with Mr. Greenleaf is in the context of classical music. Contrastingly, the chosen genre of Dickie Greenleaf is jazz. Jazz represents Dickie’s rebellion against the silver spoon privilege he was born into and the underside of society that he longs to inhabit. Music, for both Tom and Dickie, represents the vehicle for inhabiting a different social status, even if Tom longs for upward mobility and Dickie of an earthier life and freedom from his own privilege.
The character of Dickie is Ripley’s foil, an inverse of Tom’s naivety and striving sensibility. While Tom wishes to break into the elite privilege that Dickie inhabits, Dickie wishes to escape his family name and maintain anonymity in some of the seedier corners of Southern Italy, and disavows his powerful father. Both Tom and Dickie feel miscast in life, but while Tom feels like a poor man who deserves more, Dickie desires the humbler life. Mr. Greenleaf feels that by moving away and not taking up an occupation, Dickie is turning down his inherited privilege, while Tom Ripley has nothing to lose, with no perceivable family obligations and no ties to New York.
Without these ties, Tom is an orphan of sorts, and Marge and Dickie adopt Tom as a stand-in child, a role Tom happily adopts. Tom is often caught between them, first when Dickie arrives late for lunch at Marge’s house, and then, more affectionately, when Tom and Marge tease Dickie about not being able to drive and agree that they ought to get an icebox. Additionally, when Tom compliments Dickie’s ring, Marge is delighted as Tom bears witness to the ring that symbolizes the romantic connection between them. Tom appears at his happiest when he is being taken in by Marge and Dickie, and the belonging he feels in their beautiful home is novel for him. While the viewer struggles to understand what is motivating Tom, one can see that he feels very happy in his friendship with Marge and Dickie, and thinks of them as his guardians. In the more unsettling iteration of this parental role-play, Tom does impressions of Dickie and Marge into a mirror while touching a gold watch.