‘Ripley’ Turns Black And White To Color

I didn’t watch Ripley at first. The black and white was a barrier (I know, but shut up, I was not alone). I have no trouble with black and white photography, so why black and white film? Perhaps because film feels more real to me, meaning it should be more real, meaning color. Either way, I hesitated to watch Ripley. At worst, I thought the black and white would be pretentious, at best … well, I couldn’t think of that scenario. So I kept putting it off and putting it off as praise was heaped on this latest of a million adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Then close friends started to recommend it, then I felt like a jerk (then I felt pretentious for avoiding it). So I put it on, and … wow.

By now most of us know this story. In 1950s New York, tenement-housed petty fraudster named Tom Ripley (a gecko-esque Andrew Scott) is hired by the wealthy father of a trust-fund kid, Dickie Greenleaf (a charmingly befuddled Johnny Flynn), to bring Dickie back from Italy, where he is frittering his life away painting terrible paintings while his girlfriend, Marge (Dakota Fanning in full Mona Lisa mode), writes a terrible book. Basically, instead of doing what he was paid to do, Tom falls for his target’s lifestyle, a lifestyle that has up until now been elusive to him. It’s this out-of-placeness that the black and white of this series, created by Steve Zaillian, fully exposes. Tom is often in Ripley’s monochromatic frames alone, disconnected from other human beings, often overwhelmed by his surroundings—dwarfed by buildings and their interiors, constricted by hallways and stairs—a man lost at sea, never comfortable, a guy who can get lost in a Caravaggio but can’t quite settle into the lushness of his new environs.

On the other hand, Dickie regularly appears either in the company of Marge or his friend Freddie (a smooth Eliot Sumner), always ensconced, at home in full luxury, never isolated, never burdened. Marge is also placid within her milieu (despite not quite being of this world herself), while Freddie swims through it—sharp, alert, penetrative. Even the inspector (Italy’s answer to Jean Reno, Maurizio Lombardi) on the case is casual, comfortable in his skin the way Tom can never be. The boat scene in Episode 3, when Dickie is killed, is a great metaphor for Tom’s experience throughout this series. Having just bludgeoned his “friend,” Tom is knocked off the motorboat, which is anchored by concrete, and circles him like a particularly tenacious shark, returning again and again. Over and over Tom is hit, but every time he bobs back up—he will not be pushed down by this ruthless cycle. Yet even as Tom captures the boat, he is nearly maimed by its motor—it is clear no matter what he does, this man is always two steps away from being expunged.

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Watching Ripley reminded me of wandering through a gallery with a perfectly curated collection of black and white photography—from Ansel Adams’s majestic clouds over rugged landscapes, to Henri-Cartier Bresson’s treacherous stair- and puddle-filled cityscapes, to Helmut Newton’s crisp portraits against sprawling towers, to Robert Frank’s top-hatted businessmen overwhelmed by the smoky city, to Lewis Hine’s underaged factory workers overshadowed by machines, to Paul Strand’s Wall Street businessmen under looming skyscrapers. I almost felt the impulse to pause every frame, just so that I could take in every detail, like I would a still photograph—the texture of the chiaroscuro, the precision of the mise en scène, the exquisite aesthetics of every single shot. Ripley is a show that I would have been satisfied to watch with no sound at all, my eyes alone entirely filled to the brim.

It’s always a pleasure to happen upon such a finely executed piece of popular culture, but in the age of streaming’s anti-artistry, it feels almost impossible. Three years ago, librarian and film zine-er Katie Stebbins tweeted about “The Intangible Sludge (my term for ‘things look like ass now’)” on streaming, which she would later note is less to do with color and more to do with flatness and filters. At Vice, Gita Jackson went more specific on what they called the “Netflix Look.” “The image in general is dark, and the colors are extremely saturated; especially in scenes at night, there tends to be a lot of colored lighting, making everything look like it’s washed in neon even if the characters are inside,” they wrote, adding that the most annoying part for them is that “everything is also shot in an extremely conventional way.” In the same piece, Jackson noted Netflix’s approved camera list adds to its uniformity, as does its 4k requirement, which results in files compressed onto the screen to a point of ugly sharpness. This is the McDonald’s of the content machine—while Ripley can sate on visuals alone, Netflix sates on numbers, disposable dime-a-dozen “storytelling” produced as quickly and cheaply as possible, keeping audiences full and dissatisfied all at once. 

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So how could something that looks as good as Ripley end up on Netflix? Well, the joke is it was actually made for Showtime. According to Deadline, the move was made after Showtime announced they would be focusing on spinning off “TV universes” from Billions and Dexter (which, wait, what?). Netflix saw some Ripley footage and, to their credit, took it on. Zaillian and cinematographer Robert Elswit are primarily film guys, though they did collaborate on another good-looking noir show, The Night Of (that one was made for HBO). And Zaillian imagined Ripley in monochrome from the start. “I did want it to not feel like a postcard, and Italy, if shot in bright vibrant colors in the summertime with blue skies, can feel that way,” he told The Daily Beast. “I felt that this was a more dark and sinister story, not unlike a film noir story, and so black and white seemed to be the natural choice.”

They took their time—the post-production alone lasted two years (at most it’s usually half that). And rather than the script dictating the shoot, both Zaillian and Elswit were open to discovery. That is how they came up with so many scenes of beautiful architecture engulfing Scott. “Some of these places are so magnificent that we were shooting in, and they are so grand, that the only way to show them is to have the figure be small and the place big,” Zaillian told Vanity Fair. He was reminded of M.C. Escher’s pattern-laden graphics when he saw the labyrinthine stairs in Atrani, the city on the Amalfi Coast where Dickie and Marge are hiding out (turns out Escher actually lived there). Because of this, stairs became a motif in the series. Elswit told VF black and white particularly brings out details like this. “The cobblestones, the buildings themselves, everything else. That’s what you get in black-and-white—texture,” he said, adding, “It doesn’t look nearly as interesting, by the way, in color, it just doesn’t.”

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The black and white also brings out the color in the characters. The meticulous look of this monochromatic series makes anything that doesn’t comply with its clean choreography pop. Tom’s slightly rumpled surface, for instance, betrays his working-class background. Then there’s Dickie’s constant confoundedness, reflecting the stupid beauty of his luxurious life. Marge’s flat demeanor also speaks volumes, allowing space for Tom’s discomfort. Then there’s Freddie, unresting the scenery while unresting Tom, their fluid appearance slipping into the cracks of this sun-dappled idyll. With everyone else, a gesture, an expression, the constant refusal to set off kilter what is already off kilter within Tom. Without the noise of color, all this human nuance appears in bas relief.

“The light, always the light,” a priest tells Tom as he stands before a Caravaggio, a line borrowed from Zaillian’s own past travels through Italy. He told Vulture about visiting a small museum in Perugia, where he became lost in a Caravaggist work that seemed to illuminate the room like no other. “After watching me stand longer before this painting than any others in the room,” he said, “the guard came up behind me and said exactly what the priest says in the show.” And this is what Ripley itself becomes, a bright spot in an increasingly unremarkable popular culture space. Just as Tom becomes one with Caravaggio himself in the last episode, Ripley reaches back to a time in which series, in which films, were given room to illuminate.

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