Noir Transformations:  Gender, Place and Identity in The Talented Mr Ripley and Dirty Weekend

Andrew Jeffcoat, Lancaster University

highsmithSince its origins in the early 40's, the noir genre, both in film and the novel, has changed considerably in its representation of characters and events, though its dominant feel and defining traits remain recognisable. While early manifestations of the genre are typically represented by the hardboiled detective narrative with all its component parts - the downtrodden everyman Spade character and the femme fatale providing the challenge to the masculine role and identity - the characteristic features of the noir thriller have altered over time, creating very different narratives to those originally penned by the likes of Hammett and Chandler.  My intention here is to examine Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley and Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend, paying particular attention to the way in which these texts modify the characteristics of canonical noir in their representations of gender, identity, place and the society within which the protagonists operate.  The representations of Ripley and Bella are interesting in terms of both their conformity to and their divergence from the traditional ideas of the noir protagonist. In terms of moral standpoint and behaviour throughout their respective texts, both make for unlikely central narrative figures, yet at the same time manage to create in the reader a surprising sense of complicity and sympathy, despite the fact that both could rightly be described as dangerous sociopaths. The question, then, is how and with what effects Highsmith and Zahavi achieve this transformation of the traditional central noir figure.

The noir thriller is typically associated with masculinity in crisis - the increasingly powerful representations of women and emasculated male protagonists have long been central to noir texts. As Susan Hayward puts it, in Key Concepts in Cinema Studies, 'film noir is about power struggles and sexual identity'. Early film noir saw the challenge to sexual identity represented through the femme fatale, 'symbols of 'unnatural' phallic power: toting guns and cigarette holders like the best of men'. [1] These women were powerful figures who lured men into criminal acts and danger as exemplified by Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. In the case of Ripley and Bella, though, the gender power struggles are destabilised in both cases.

Bella represents a woman described essentially as trapped in both mental and physical terms, by a predominantly masculine-empowered society. She decides to go some way towards standing up against this masculinity - the choice between 'a butcher and a lamb' [2] - ultimately as a result of the explicit actions of Tim, her voyeuristic neighbour. This initial conflict then develops into an effort to rid the streets of the sort of men encountered throughout the text, motivated by a desire not unlike that expressed by Travis Bickle in Scorcese's Taxi Driver.

The driving motive for Ripley, in contrast, is not coloured with any such gender driven designs, as his crimes seem motivated as much by boredom and dissatisfaction with his own life as by his desire for everything that Dickie Greenleaf represents, and force of circumstance in the case of Freddie Miles. Where Bella's behaviour can be seen as stemming directly from gender-tension, Tom's case is less clear-cut though also draws heavily on issues of masculinity in crisis and psychoanalytic ideas of suppression of desire and identity.

It is interesting, in The Talented Mr Ripley, to note the way in which extraordinary, violent actions and thoughts are normalised and made to seem unremarkable. Through the third person narrative, Highsmith grants us access to Tom's every thought, thus drawing the reader in to a state of complicity with the crimes committed. The key power of the text is that the reader is, at least on an internalised mental level, able to relate at least to some of the desires and needs expressed by Tom through his actions. Presumably, few readers can relate to the actual murders committed. However, both of these catastrophic events take place within the second quarter of the text, with the remainder taken up by Tom's attempts to avoid capture by the police and to ensure that those closest to Tom, namely Marge and Mr Greenleaf Sr., do not suspect him. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the text itself is not the murders themselves but the fact that Ripley successfully evades the questions asked of him by both the police and the aforementioned loved-ones.

In The Talented Mr Ripley, the society and location typical of the noir thriller is redefined and relocated to a European setting. Prior to Tom's departure, Mr Greenleaf Sr. recommends his reading of Henry James' The Ambassadors. Interestingly, this very text provides a thematic template for Highsmith's own work, as The Ambassadors, like The Talented Mr Ripley, concerns itself with an American protagonist travelling to Europe in search of a missing son and deciding to stay there. Rather than the grimy, dark side of the city we see so often in early noir novels, then, Italy is the main centre of the narrative action, with occasional visits to surrounding parts of Europe.

This displacement of the predominant narrative action serves to reinforce classically defined aspects of the noir thriller, as the unfamiliar serves to instil in Tom a powerful sense of claustrophobia and paranoia, particularly in Venice, when we learn that he had 'the feeling that he was being followed, especially when he walked through the long, narrow street to his house door'. This stage of the book, a far cry from the more relaxed atmosphere of Mongibello that was evident at least in the early part of Tom's visit, leaves Tom terrfied of having 'nowhere to run if attacked, no house door to duck into'. [3] Indeed, the opening words of the book, 'Tom glanced behind him', serve to set up this feeling of paranoia from the outset, and by the time we find him afraid of the narrow streets of Venice, his paranoia has grown to the extent that the shadows and darkness associated with the thin streets and canals is linked to 'fears of nameless, formless things that haunted his brain like the Furies' (186). The idea of the Furies haunting Tom's brain is an apt one. In classical mythology the Furies were represented as exacting vengeful punishment on those who committed murderous crimes not dissimilar to those acted out by Tom on Dickie and Freddie. In their early incarnation, they were specifically represented as avenging crimes committed by children against their parents. This is particularly relevant here, as the father and son figures of Herbert and Dickie are displaced to an extent by Tom himself who becomes like a son figure for Mr Greenleaf Sr.

In Venice particularly, the location and surroundings reinforce and add weight to the paranoia and claustrophobic nature of Tom's state of mind in this late stage of the text. The Brighton depicted by Zahavi in which Bella acts out the events of Dirty Weekend is also closely linked to the thematic aspects of the text. In the early parts of the book, Zahavi sets the scene and Bella's state of mind in parallel, identifying the location of her house and her way of life as crucial to understanding her actions and as contributing to her 'dull, grey life', her 'abortion of a life' (2). Throughout Dirty Weekend, Zahavi uses description of different physical features of the real world, like weather and location, as a means of physically representing different aspects of Bella's behaviour and emotion.

As the text commences, we are introduced to Bella as someone who 'runs from pain and hopes it won't find her'.  Immediately, aspects of the noir are raised, though in Bella's case she is persecuted and pursued by the empty nothing of the life she leads, almost as much as by the oppressive male figures. This sense of hiding away and avoiding pain, and that 'all she wanted was to be left alone' is borne out by her 'basement flat, in a road that ran down to the sea'. In the text liquid is often associated with waste and refuse, and the idea of the underground and the dark are also given negative connotations, so the fact that Bella lives in such a location is crucial. Bella is likened to an animal cowering in its burrow, as she is said to have 'carved out a space' (1-2). Animal metaphors are numerous in the text, as different animals are called on at different times to represent both sexes, such as when Bella suggests that all dogs are male, the way all cats are female' (70), and in the question of whether to be 'the butcher or the lamb' (39).

The fact that Bella, and indeed Nimrod, live underground is related to a point Bella makes later in the text. In the car-park with Reggie, the dentist, Bella references the idea that beauty is only skin deep, on a social as well as personal level. In describing the picture of his daughter she points out that 'It looked so normal on the surface. It looked so decent and wholesome and pure on the surface. But you've got to go under the surface to find out what's there' (131).  Equally applicable to Bella and her subterranean home, this comment is self-reflexive as much as externalised. On both a mental level and in terms of Brighton this can be applied to Bella herself, as we are granted access to her thoughts 'beneath the surface' and to the memory of the actions she commits that are concealed by her outward appearance. Furthermore, these actions can be seen as connected to her house, which represents the normally invisible depth beneath Brighton's more attractive surface.

This sense of claustrophobia and oppression is crucial to the first major narrative action of the text. Tim's penetration of Bella's house both in terms of gaze and through the use of the telephone in the early part of the book causes Bella to shut herself in yet further from the outside world, surrendering the meagre amounts of light and fresh air to which she can get access. Having observed him watching her through the window, Bella decides to block herself off completely with her 'cheap curtains', which leads to her feeling 'a bit closed in'. Importantly, this brings Bella to regard herself as imprisoned, and though she accepts that she's to face 'an indefinite sentence with no hope of remission' she simply settles down to her fate. While she acknowledges that 'men riot over less' (8-10) an important early gender distinction is made here, as it takes telephone calls, and a six month wait followed by physical contact to make her respond.

Buildings and spaces in Dirty Weekend are also important tools in terms of the gender conflict symbolised by Zahavi through the liberal scattering of representative phalli that Bella uses to penetrate her male victims. This representational use of the object can be extended to the buildings and spaces themselves. Essentially, there is a distinction in Dirty Weekend between submissive, hollow female spaces and aggressive male phallic buildings. Of course, Bella lives in an underground space that is penetrated by Tim. Nimrod also lives in such a space, and this ties in with his emasculated sense of male self. Though Nimrod is male, he is represented as essentially sexless, with the fact that he 'needs a woman' (32) highlighting his lack of sexual and therefore gender identity. As a result, Nimrod's house, like Bella's, can be defined as one of the female spaces of the text. Importantly, in this underground house there is no attempt at penetration on the part of Nimrod, and in reward he is one of the few males in the text that Bella declines to kill.

In contrast to these underground 'rented rat-holes' (140), we are presented with male constructions in or on which symbolic penetration takes place. In the case of Norman, with his impotence hinted at by his name - 'no man', having ascended to the third floor of the hotel, we are presented with an attempt at penetration that is ultimately unsuccessful due to 'Percy's' unwillingness to play the game. From this point of vertical privilege, Bella is touched by 'a pang of purest penis-envy' (103), embodied by her desire to urinate on the drunken men passing below her. Again, this ties in with the linking throughout the text of power and excretion, namely that power and wealth are associated with the ability to excrete waste on those without. Bella herself explicitly references this when she explains that 'the point of cannibalism is to ... squat down in the grass and excrete your enemy' (104). The height of the hotel, then, is to Bella indicative of a desired phallus, one from which it is possible not only to ejaculate, but also to urinate. Having taken her up to this hotel bedroom, supposedly to 'stand on the balcony and gaze at the sea' (100), Norman's failure to actually achieve penetration of Bella, though she accepts it here more than at any other time in the text, is reflected in the fact that his death is alone in Dirty Weekend in its not being performed with a phallic symbol or by symbolic penetration. In contrast to the hammer, gun, car and knife, Norman gets asphyxiated.

The killing of Reggie with his own beloved Mercedes also takes place at a location in keeping with the idea of the penetrative male building. Having essentially kidnapped Bella, Reggie takes her to the top of the multi-storey car-park and forces himself on her. Having previously violated her through the penetrative use of his dentist's drill - 'he drilled deeper and deeper making the cavity even larger' (121) - Bella is left unable to clamp her jaws shut to castrate him as she wishes. Importantly, this then results in a double excretion on his part - ejaculating and then urinating nearby. We then see a contrast between two phalli, as she takes control of the car: 'the engine fired and he half-twisted, holding a flaccid penis in his hand' (138). As in the case of the hotel, the height of the multi-storey car park is associated with the phallus and excretion. We should note, too, that the underground buildings are only really present at the beginning of the text, prior to her decision to be a butcher as opposed to a lamb: following this choice there is very little mention or description of places below ground.

It is clear that in Dirty Weekend, perhaps to a greater extent than in The Talented Mr Ripley, the buildings themselves take on meaning and symbolism in terms of action and representation of important narrative themes. While these may extend beyond what could be regarded as typical of the noir thriller, where 'the cityscape is fraught with danger and corruption, the shadowy, ill-lit streets reflect the blurred moral and intellectual values as well as the difficulty in discerning the truth' [4], there is no doubt that these classic representations of the noir city are referenced and reinforced throughout Dirty Weekend. Brighton itself is depicted in such as light, as it has been in previous romans noirs such as Brighton Rock. London, too, is mentioned as a location that embodies much of what the noir city should encompass. Having decided that she will relocate to London after her weekend of social cleansing - her 'dirty weekend' - there is a descriptive passage of London:

It would have to be London. London was the place for her. You could lose yourself in London. You lose yourself and then you find yourself. Brighton was too provincial, anyway. Too parochial. Too much the seedy little seaside town, where nothing ever happened. She would go to London and find a flat, and find a job, and find a man. A gentle kind man who wouldn't give her pain. (141)

This passage sets London up as the capital city of the noir sentiment, with the sense of the big city in contrast to the smaller scale of Brighton. The suggestion that one can lose oneself in London, often seen as a negative aspect, is inherently linked to the dominant noir theme of slipping into the shadows and being name/faceless. While this passage is important in terms of the narrative of the text - with the ambiguous ending she may very well have completed the hour and a half train journey to London and disappeared - it is replete with contradictions. Bella has proved the suggestion that nothing ever happens in Brighton wrong in the course of the text, not just through her own actions but through the actions that have been effected against her by the various male figures in the book, notably Reggie and Norman. By the conclusion of the dirty weekend no doubt Bella's seven victims and the residents of Brighton would argue that things do happen from time to time.

On top of this, Bella suggests that she will go to London with the intention of securing herself a man and a job. The idea of Bella simply going to the capital and making a new life for herself seems ambitious to say the least and the suggestion that London is the place for a sociopath such as Bella to find and maintain a constructive relationship is somewhat problematic following the events we witness throughout the text. The only work directly associated with Bella is prostitution, no doubt a short-cut to finding another man like Joey. Indeed, it is hard for us to imagine that Bella actually wants to find a man after reading Dirty Weekend - admittedly the men that she meets and disposes of are not  universally representative of male behaviour, but having adopted the role of the killer in which she seems so comfortable, what would happen to a potential partner if he got the three black marks against his name in the system devised during the episode with Reggie? We can only speculate.

Gender tension, as in the classic noir set-up with the problematic femme fatale figure, takes centre stage in both The Talented Mr Ripley and Dirty Weekend, but in a reworked form, in which gender power boundaries and boundaries of sexuality are called into question throughout. The crusade Bella mounts comes as a direct response to her perceived imbalance in the male/female power relations of society, epitomised by the extremes of male force and dominance that the seven victims represent. In the text, aside from the seven victims of Bella's killings, there are only really around five men with whom Bella interacts who live to tell the tale - Nimrod, Stan, Mr Brown, and the bartender and gun shop worker. The implication laid out here is one of a world in which men are free to behave as they wish, particularly in terms of their treatment of women. Whether Helen Zahavi regards this as fundamentally the case, at least to this extent is largely irrelevant. We can only consider the world with which we, and Bella, are presented. For Bella, then, her world is one of harsh oppression of women, enforced throughout the text by the symbolic phalli with which Bella is both threatened, and that she procures for her own use.

Bella's relationship with men prior to the beginning of the text is undoubtedly problematic, and certainly sets up her attitude towards them when she is first introduced. Ideas of prostitution and paying for sex and penetration are evident throughout Dirty Weekend, most obviously in the conversation with Nimrod in which they discuss her past employment under the control of Joey, her pimp. As Nimrod points out, 'self-knowledge is often painful' (28), and this seems to be the case for Bella, particularly when discussing her past employment with Joey. Bella explains that 'men paid to put their greasy spoons in my greasy cup' (29), another reference to fluid and discharge, and then denies in the following sentence the accusation that she is a whore. Financial exchange for penetration can be seen elsewhere in the text - Timothy essentially pays for his fatal penetration by Bella and her hammer, as she removes food from his fridge and steals the money from his wallet. While Bella is quick to defend herself against the suggestion that she's a whore - the implication of syntax presumably meaning that she was a whore but no longer classes herself as such - this is contradicted at various points as the narrative continues.

In the section of the book leading up to and including Norman's murder, this idea is most explicitly called into question. As Bella dresses herself up for the Saturday night where she heads into town with the intention of finding herself a man, we are presented with an interesting passage describing both her and the ambience and attitude of her surroundings to her presence. The section is problematic because it challenges people's preconceptions and prejudices about women in skimpy clothes out on the town, whilst simultaneously reinforcing this attitude. Zahavi writes this section not from Bella's point of view - as in the rest of the text it is written in the third person - but instils in it Bella's feelings of anger at the way she is regarded by the 'mad-dogs' (93) that she passes. The problem here is that Bella, who we already know to be a whore, or at least a retired whore, is depicted as dressed in clothes that are associated with girls selling themselves on the street.

As Bella walks down the street in her 'cheap cotton coat and red satin dress', Zahavi herself is assigning to her the very traits and symbols she so forcefully denies earlier in the text. The suggestion that she is wearing 'sheer silk, slut-black stockings' (92) serves to reinforce this image. While Bella may not wish to be referred to as a whore, and may not regard herself as such, this belief is undermined here and by the linking of penetration to financial exchange throughout. Zahavi appears imply that there is always some form of exchange when it comes to penetration and male/female relations, whether in a true financial sense, or on an emotional level. Even in the case of a one-night stand, or simple fling the implication is that there is some form of bargaining invested in the coupling. This is represented in the case of Bella and Norman when the typical idea of his buying her a drink takes the place of the classical financial exchange associated with prostitution.

In many ways, the 'champagne shits' (144) that Bella finds in the alley towards the text's conclusion represent the nadir of the interaction between male and female characters in the book. Here, as in the case of Reggie, there is a link between supposed male dominance and finance. As the three are depicted acting as they please and basking in their wealth, we are presented with one of the most disturbing scenes of the book, as the clear distinction is made between rich, young, powerful men and an old, decrepit homeless woman. As a result of their recalcitrant behaviour and obscene sense of self-worth they are rewarded with the most powerful and violent violating penetration of the text, as Bella turns up in her stolen Mercedes - another representation of an metaphorical animal as 'the soft throaty growl and two bright eyes [comes] creeping up the alley' (154).

As with Reggie, there is a link here between the literal penetration and symbolic penetration of murder. Zahavi sets up a phallic stand-off in the alley, as we see the bitter one standing with his penis hanging out, squaring up to Bella with her illegal pistol - 'it was Peckinpah, without the dust' (159). As so often in the book Zahavi's use of symbolic phalli borders on the crude double entendre, as Bella proclaims that 'a trigger's never too stiff'. However, for the 'three little lambs' (158) - an interesting choice of phrase in light of Nimrod's claim about butchers and lambs earlier in the text - their penises are no match for Bella's gun when it comes to symbols of phallic power. The killing of these three men is likened to a rape, as befits the location, up a remote, dark alley. In one of the final killings performed by Bella in the text, we are told that the previously macho hard-man emits what is described as 'a rape-scream' (166). So, in response to the various men that force themselves on her in one way or another, Bella dishes out some rape of her own with her procured phallus.

The Talented Mr Ripley is less of a bloodbath in many respects than Dirty Weekend, and the gender/sexuality tension certainly results in less corpses. However, there is no doubt that the text is fraught with conflict of gender and identity crises on a sexual and a personal level. Tom's relationship with Dickie is problematised by Highsmith in two senses: there is the underlying homosexual tension between them, primarily on Tom's part, but also to an extent on Dickie's; as well as this, there is the sense of their representing the two halves of one personality, with their similarity of appearance allowing the potential for Tom to represent the chillingly egocentric side of Dickie's lighter personality.

The relationship between Tom and his aunt, though not discussed in great detail in the text, is clearly crucial to his interaction with several of the main characters of the book. The various mentions of Aunt Dottie paint her as a spiteful figure of guardianship, and one with whom he has a less than ideal relationship. While his murderous thoughts are not overly discriminatory throughout the text, the suggestion that since Tom was eight he has imagined 'throttling her and tearing the big brooch off her dress and stabbing her a million times in the throat with it' (35) is representative of Tom's attitude towards many people in the book, to whom he is only civil for personal gain, particularly women. The question of Tom's sexuality in relation both to women and to other men, particularly Dickie, is interesting. He is clearly appalled by Marge, in a manner not dissimilar to Reggie's tirade on the foulness of women in Dirty Weekend, and constantly considers doing away with her, as here in Venice: 'She bent over, staring at the deep water of the canal. Tom had an impulse to push her in' (196).

The sense of Tom's misogyny, linked to a rejection of the maternal female figure following his upbringing by Dottie is manifested most powerfully in terms of Marge. Tom finds all aspects of Marge's femininity repulsive including the thought of her clothing: 'her underwear would be draped over his chairs tonight if he invited her to stay. The idea repelled him' (195). While Tom's attitude to women seems to be defined in this way, the idea of his sexuality is less clear-cut. In reference to Cleo, one of the few people in the text who Tom genuinely regards as a friend, we are told that 'she never wanted or expected him to make a pass at her and he never had' (27).

While the implication is of homosexuality in Tom, this too is never strongly reinforced. Indeed, while it is clear that Tom has a degree of such feelings for Dickie, the sense of homosexuality is problematic for him. Highsmith attributes to Tom a sense of shame that is apparent every time his sexuality is called into question, yet his feelings for Dickie evidently border on homosexual love. In Tom we see portrayed a misogynistic homophobe, someone who is repulsed by women and symbols of femininity, and similarly distanced from his true feelings for men. It is this as much as anything that serves to isolate Tom. For all his charm and chameleonic ability to adopt any persona he chooses, he is unable to fund fulfilling companionship, not helped by his seeming inability to keep the darker side of his consciousness under control.

The boundaries of the noir thriller, then, are both adhered to and redefined throughout the two texts I have looked at here. It is evident that both represent much that it is at the heart of the noir thriller, in terms of a paranoid, persecuted 'everyman (or woman)' protagonist in a society representative of social malaise and of flexible moral values. At the same time, we see evidence of the dark, imposing cityscapes that come to represent the darker sides of the two protagonists' consciousnesses. However, the gender and identity tensions of the two texts go some way to redefining the pervasive characteristics of the noir thriller, as both Tom and Bella seem to be unwitting victims of the darker side of their own minds as much as any external persecuting force. The sense of the tension caused by the blurring of boundaries between internal and external thoughts and actions seems to be the key to both Tom and Bella. As Zahavi puts it:

Sometimes you think certain thoughts, but you don't say them. They're such dirty thoughts that you can't believe you can even think them. You think no-one else could possibly think those thoughts, so you keep them to yourself....But one speak your unspoken thought, and it doesn't seem so dirty when you say it out loud. (152)


Bloom, Clive, ed. Twentieth Century Suspense (Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1990)

Doane, Mary Ann, Femmes Fatales (London: Routledge, 1991)

Hayward, Susan, Key Concepts in Cinema Studies (London: Routledge, 1996)

Highsmith, Patricia, The Talented Mr Ripley (London: Vintage, 1999)

James, Henry, The Ambassadors (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1948)

Jayamanne, Laleen, Kiss Me Deadly (Sydney: Power Publications, 1995)

Zahavi, Helen, Dirty Weekend (London: Flamingo, 1991)



[1] Susan Hayward, Key Concepts in Cinema Studies (London: Routledge, 1996) p. 121

[2] Helen Zahavi, Dirty Weekend (London: Flamingo, 1991) p. 40.  All subsequent references are to this edition.

[3] Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley (London: Vintage, 1999) p. 186.  All subsequent references are to this edition.

[4] Hayward, Key Concepts, p. 118