On the photographs of Saul Leiter…
“In Carol, we definitely keep returning to the predicament of looking as a visual strategy in how the film is put together. It was very conscious, as something that puts the subject on one side of the glass and the object on the other and filters their access to each. I think that visual language is a way of just revealing the act of looking as a predicament to begin with and one that is never completely easy to achieve. There’s always something in the way of what you want. [Saul Leiter] is a clear influence because he loved to do that and he did it so beautifully, disrupting his subject matter and finding planes of intersection and abstraction in his colour photography. While at times you think you’re looking at an abstract painting, it actually gives such a specific sense of time and place because of the kind of light and how it plays on glass and how it interferes with dust and dirt and grime. The real conditions of being in that city at that moment are revealed as palpable and beautiful and elemental in a way.”
What I found by reading through her notebooks written in the postwar period, when she wrote her most celebrated novels The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, was not the ramblings of a homophobe or a misogynist, but a series of conflicted, even anguished entries about being a lesbian in Cold War America. Highsmith was frustrated, horrified, baffled and intrigued by her sexuality, and at times, defensive and proud of being gay.
I felt guilty enjoying the novels of Patricia Highsmith. Later I realized that the guilt comes not from reading thrillers but from her ingenious method of making the reader identify with the murderer. She is a great Dostoyevskian crime writer.
Patricia Highsmith wrote 22 novels, many of them set in Greenwich Village, where she lived. But the landscape of Highsmith Country consists not only of the physical Village neighborhood, but also the dark and desperate territory of Highsmith’s psyche.
“He mingled two books for American Friend. One of them he didn’t buy.” (Wenders’ frame story concerns forged paintings, a plot fragment borrowed, uncredited, from Ripley Under Ground.)
Highsmith met Wenders before The American Friend, when he tried to buy film rights to one of her books. According to Wenders, the novels he was interested in, Cry of the Owl and The Tremor of Forgery, were already optioned. Highsmith suggested he read the one she had just finished writing. “It was Ripley’s Game,” said Wenders, “and I liked it from the beginning.” And Highsmith liked Wenders. “There’s something about him that’s OK. His artistic quality, his enthusiasm.”
The American Friend, she concedes, has a certain “stylishness,” and she thinks the scenes on the train are terrific. Also, she liked Wenders’s Paris, Texas. But, back in the American Friend, she is confused by Dennis Hopper’s highway cowboy rendition of Ripley. “Those aren’t my words,” she says of his philosophical soliloquies.
Patricia Highsmith said of herself, “I am always in love. . . .” Yet at her memorial service in Tegna, Switzerland, in 1995, there were no lovers from the past, and there was no lover to mourn her in the present. The service was filmed, which Highsmith would have liked, because although reclusive, she was interested in posterity. Such display also allowed Highsmith to hide in plain sight (as her hero Edgar Allan Poe put it in “The Purloined Letter”) the fact that all her relationships had failed. Highsmith had died in a hospital alone, and the last person to see her was her accountant. Highsmith was obsessed with taxes.
The hallmark of her work is a calm, hallucinatory intensity built on sentences of unemotional plainness and clarity. Her hypersensitive protagonists, logically, inexorably, spiral downhill from ordinary anxiety to murderous rage and madness. Like animals keenly alert for invisible traps or New Yorkers in the first uneasy months after September 11, Highsmith’s characters move through their lives with an ever-increasing and sometimes justified wariness. Graham Greene famously called her “a poet of apprehension” who had “created a world of her own—a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.”