The Talented Mr. Ripley (Film)

The Talented Mr. Ripley (Film) Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Jackets (Symbol)

The Princeton jacket is a vital symbol that drives the plot of the film. At the very beginning of the film, Tom's voiceover indicates the importance of this jacket, as he states "If I could just go back. If I could rub everything out. Starting with myself. Starting with borrowing a jacket." To the Greenleaf family, the jacket represents wealth, class and high status. It is because of this jacket and its connotations of success and privilege that they approach Tom in the first place. In this way, the jacket symbolizes the attitudes of the elite and the life of the wealthy.

Later on in the film, however, jackets (and Tom’s clothes more generally) become a giveaway of Tom’s status as an impostor in the world of the wealthy. While no one thinks too much of it, Dickie maintains a playful suspicion about the small rotation of clothes that Tom has in his possession, suggesting he borrow clothes. When they ride the train together to Rome, Dickie insists that Tom buy a new jacket. Ironically, Dickie views Tom’s hesitance to spend as a sign of prudence and responsibility, rather than revealing the nature of his true identity and social status.

The jacket also symbolizes Tom’s attraction to Dickie, as when they ride the train to San Remo and Tom surreptitiously buries his face in the jacket of the sleeping Dickie. Tom is not only leaning on Dickie’s shoulder in this scene, but rubbing his face against the luxurious fabric of Dickie’s jacket, a symbol of Dickie’s wealth and desirability.

Classical Music and Jazz Music (Motif)

Classical music and jazz are both significant motifs in the film. Classical music represents both Tom’s way into the elite world that he covets, but also a defining symbol of his exclusion from the upper classes. While he has a strong personal connection to classical music and is a classical pianist himself, he is not quite welcome in the fancy world of Carnegie Hall, surreptitiously watching from the hallway and sneaking in to play the piano after the concert is over.

Jazz, unusually enough, represents Tom's actual ascent from low-brow to high-brow culture, as it is what connects him most to Dickie. Before going to Italy, Tom obsessively studies jazz music in order to fit in. Over time he perfectly memorizes all the famous songs, a moment which marks a transition in his character, as he is now able to meet Dickie in Italy. Jazz music is essential in scenes where Dickie and Tom forge a close relationship, as they bond over various jazz musical festivals and constantly play jazz music in Dickie's mansion. Tom studies and learns jazz music solely for the purpose of becoming close to Dickie and earning his trust and admiration. Dickie's father, however, has the following to say about jazz: "Of course, Dickie's idea of music is Jazz. To my ear jazz is just noise, just an insolent noise." Herbert Greenleaf does not understand or like jazz, and bemoans Dickie’s appreciation of jazz in the same way that he bemoans Dickie’s laziness and ungratefulness about money.

Water (Motif)

Water is an ominous motif in the film, as it represents claustrophobia, frustration and violence. In the movie, water is associated with drowning and death. This can be seen when the young pregnant woman drowns herself, as well as when Tom kills Dickie during a yacht ride. The film usurps the positive connotations of water as healing and relaxing to deliberately emphasize Tom's tortured mental state. Water also represents transition, a key theme of the film as Tom adopts the persona of Dickie Greenleaf.

The Dark Basement (Motif)

The film uses the image of a dark basement to symbolize Tom's troubled mindset and his ability to compartmentalize his past and his violent outbursts. This can be seen in the question he poses to Peter in Venice when they are discussing whether or not murderers have any remorse: "Don't you just take the past and put it in a room, in the basement, then lock the door and never go in there?"

The metaphor of the basement is complemented by numerous shots of dark rooms, basements, and confined spaces, creating a strong sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. The dark basement motif provides great insight into the extent to which Tom suffers from depression and violent thoughts, and also his ability to stave off remorse.

Dickie's Clothes (Symbol)

Dickie's clothes represent his identity, as well as his life of privilege and luxury. When Tom wears Dickie's clothes, it appears at first that he imagines himself in Dickie's position of power and wealth. However, as the film progresses, we discover that this symbolic act has darker undertones. By wearing Dickie's clothes, Tom encourages himself to become Dickie entirely, prompting him to kill Dickie and adopt his persona.

When he does impressions of the two of them into the mirror he holds a gold watch covetously, and in the following scene when Dickie makes espresso the camera keeps a tight frame around Dickie’s ring as Tom admires it. The material objects that show the wealth of Dickie and other characters are what distinguish them as wealthy, and we see that these tangible signifiers are particularly seductive to Tom. Dickie’s ring is a symbol of the devotion between Marge and him, much like a wedding ring, and only more firmly establishes the couple's role as Tom’s surrogate parents.

Laughter (Motif)

Tom is described by both Marge and Dickie as making them laugh. When Dickie asks Marge about Tom during Tom’s first visit to lunch, Marge says that he made her laugh so hard she almost got a nosebleed. When Marge asks Dickie if Tom is going to stay with them, Dickie tells her that Tom makes him laugh. Tom’s ability to make people laugh is what gives him admission into their lives. The exact nature of his sense of humor remains somewhat oblique throughout the film. While Tom can do impressions, it is unclear what makes him so funny to the wealthy couple. Laughter represents the way Tom is granted access to a world he is not authentically from by using social niceties and charms to convince people of his value. His ability to elicit laughter represents his social value.

Italy (Symbol)

Italy is a place that allows Dickie to feel the freedom that is a cornerstone of his rebellion and breaking away from his family upbringing. In Italy, Dickie can pursue his favorite things without contention: jazz, women, and sailing. The culture of Italy is depicted as looser and more permissive than the culture of New York and the stodgier world of his family. The Italy of the film is one in which men catcall women on the street, the perfect setting for Dickie to fall in with a more expressive, careless masculinity, one which contrasts with his father’s world of business and recitals. Italy symbolizes indulgence and pleasure, while New York symbolizes business and obligation.

Italy, with its strong Catholic backbone, also acts as a symbol for religious codes and ethical standards. Even though Italy is the free and easy backdrop for Dickie's wayward ways, it is also the place in which his actions bear moral consequence.

Doubles and Twins (Motif)

Tom is preoccupied with the concept of the double and sees twin-ship, brotherhood and identical properties wherever he looks. He wants to merge his identity with Dickie and spends the second half of the movie moving between two characters, sometimes pretending to be Dickie and Tom in the same evening. His chief pathology, indeed, is being unable to distinguish between himself and the man whom he loves and eventually kills. The opera scene that so moves him is one in which two men fight a duel. Duels are themselves rituals in which one man must get shot, and signifies the swelling tension between two people who cannot find agreement. When he takes the carriage ride with Meredith, he tells her that he cannot love her because when he looks at her he sees Marge. For Tom, identity is not a steady category, but a mutable quality. One person can merge with another just on the basis of hair color, or the removal of a pair of glasses or the forging of a signature. In many ways, Tom’s efficacy as a shapeshifter has to do with his preoccupation with doubling, and his inability to distinguish between different subjectivities.