The American Tom Ripley (Delon) has been sent to Italy to persuade his wealthy friend, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), to return to the United States and take over his father's business. Philippe intends to do no such thing and the impoverished Tom enjoys living a life of luxury, so the two men essentially spend money all day and carouse all night. Tom is fixated on Philippe and his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt) and covets the other man's life. Philippe eventually grows bored with his friend's fawning and becomes cruel and abusive to him. The final straw is when, during a yachting trip, Philippe strands Tom in the dinghy and leaves him to lie in the sun for hours.
Back on board, Tom hatches a plan to kill Philippe and steal his identity. First, he leaves evidence of Philippe's philandering for an outraged Marge to find. After Marge goes ashore, Philippe confronts Tom, who admits his plan quite casually. Philippe, believing it to be a joke, plays along and asks Tom for the plan's details. Suddenly frightened, Philippe offers Tom a substantial sum to leave him and Marge alone but Tom states that he can obtain this sum anyway and far more. At last pretending to accept his offer, Tom stabs Philippe to death as the latter screams Marge's name. He casts the body overboard and returns to port.
Upon returning to shore, Tom informs Marge that Philippe has decided to stay behind. He then goes travelling around Italy using Philippe's name and bank account, even flawlessly mimicking his voice and mannerisms; in effect, Tom has become Philippe, even affixing his own photo, with notary seal, in Philippe's passport. He rents a large suite in a Rome hotel.
When Philippe's suspicious friend, Freddie Miles (Billy Kearns), begins to suspect the truth while staying in the same hotel, Tom murders him as well. Freddie's body is soon found and the Italian police inevitably get involved. Tom continues his charade, switching between his identity and Philippe's, depending on what the situation demands. After carrying out an elaborate scheme to implicate Philippe in Freddie's murder, Tom forges a suicide note and a will, leaving the Greenleaf fortune to Marge.
In the aftermath, Tom has survived a long string of close shaves, thrown the Italian police off his trail and seems to have outwitted everybody. He even succeeds in seducing Marge, with whom he begins openly cohabiting. When Philippe's yacht is being moved into dry dock, his decomposed body is found attached to the boat, because the anchor cable used to sink his corpse had become tangled around the propeller. The film ends with Tom being unknowingly called toward the police.Alain Delon as Tom Ripley
Maurice Ronet as Philippe Greanleaf
Marie Laforêt as Marge Duval
Erno Crisa as Inspector Riccordi
Billy Kearns as Freddy Miles
Frank Latimore as O'Brien
Elvire Popesco as Madame Popova
Nicolas Petrov as Boris the dancer
Ave Ninchi as Signora Gianna, landlady in Rome
Lily Romanelli as Greenleaf's Housekeeper in Mongibello
Nerio Bernardi as the Ship's Agency Director
Viviane Chantel as The Belgian lady
Paul Muller as The Blind Man (uncredited)
René Clément as a servant (uncredited cameo appearance)
Romy Schneider as Freddy's companion (uncredited cameo appearance; Schneider was Delon's girlfriend at that time)
Delon was cast after the director saw him in Women are Weak.
Purple Noon was lauded by critics and made Delon a star. In 1962, Clément and Paul Gégauff won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Foreign Film Screenplay. It enjoys a loyal cult following even today, with fans including film director Martin Scorsese.
Roger Ebert gave Purple Noon three stars (compared to the four-star review he gave to the 1999 version of The Talented Mr. Ripley), writing that "the best thing about the film is the way the plot devises a way for Ripley to create a perfect cover-up" but criticized the "less than satisfactory ending," feeling that "Purple Noon ends as it does only because Clement doesn't have Highsmith's iron nerve."
James Berardinelli rated Purple Noon higher than The Talented Mr. Ripley, giving it a four-star review (compared to two and a half stars for The Talented Mr. Ripley) Berardinelli praised Delon's acting, saying that "Tom is fascinating because Delon makes him so" and also complimented the film for "expert camerawork and crisp direction." Berardinelli placed Purple Noon on his All-Time 100 list and compared it to the 1999 film: "The remake went back to the source material, Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. The result, while arguably truer to the events of Highsmith's book, is vastly inferior. To say it suffers by comparison to Purple Noon is an understatement. Almost every aspect of Rene Clement's 1960 motion picture is superior to that of Minghella's 1999 version, from the cinematography to the acting to the screenplay. Matt Damon might make a credible Tom Ripley but only for those who never experienced Alain Delon's portrayal." Nandini Ramnath wrote for Scroll.in, "The definitive portrayal of crime novelist Patricia Highsmith’s most enduring creation was as early as 1960. Damon and Hopper come close to conveying the ruthlessness and ambition of Tom Ripley, but Delon effortless captures his mystique."
Highsmith's opinion of the film was mixed. She felt that Alain Delon was "excellent" in the role of Tom Ripley and described the film overall as "very beautiful to the eye and interesting for the intellect", but criticized the ending in which it is implied that Ripley is to be caught by the police: "[I]t was a terrible concession to so-called public morality that the criminal had to be caught."
In 2012 StudioCanal funded a restoration of the movie by the Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, a restoration being all the more warranted as part of the film's atmosphere is due to the sun-drenched scenes mentioned in the film's original title. The restored version was to be shown at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival as part of an homage to Delon's career, prior to re-release in France at least.
On December 4, 2012, the Criterion Collection released the high-definition digital restoration of Purple Noon on Blu-ray and DVD. Special features include an interview with René Clément scholar and author Denitza Bantcheva, archival interviews with Alain Delon and Patricia Highsmith, the film's original English-language trailer, a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Geoffrey O'Brien and excerpts from a 1981 interview with Clément. The film has also been released on Blu-ray in the UK (Studiocanal, 2013) and Germany (Studiocanal, 2013) and Japan (Kinokuniya, 2011).