Friday, July 15, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The American Friend (1977)

The American Friend (1977) *** ½ 
Directed by: Wim Wenders.
Written by: Wim Wenders based on Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Dennis Hopper (Tom Ripley), Bruno Ganz (Jonathan Zimmermann), Lisa Kreuzer (Marianne Zimmermann), Gérard Blain (Raoul Minot), Nicholas Ray (Derwatt), Samuel Fuller (Der Amerikaner), Peter Lilienthal (Marcangelo), Daniel Schmid (Igraham), Sandy Whitelaw (Arzt in Paris), Jean Eustache (Freundlicher Mann), Lou Castel (Rodolphe).

I am currently making my way through Patricia Highsmith’s masterful Tom Ripley novels, and decided I should go back and check out the cinematic representations of her sociopathic “hero”. I had only seen Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (which is far and away the best film of his all too short directorial career), but considering that Wim Wenders was one of the most interesting directors in the world at the time he made The American Friend, an adaption of the third Ripley book, Ripley’s Game, I decided to start there.

Wenders film doesn’t seem all that interested in Highsmith’s plot – which is odd, because he went to great lengths to adapt one of her books (he discovered that all of her books had already been optioned, and he couldn’t get the rights to any of them, but when she heard, she offered to supply with the as yet unpublished Ripley’s Game). This is a film much more about attitude and style, than about plot, which means that at times, it is confusing because there is so much plot in the movie. Wenders it seems, is more interested in making a commentary on American crime movies – and their influence on European film – than on a crime film himself. What is remarkable however is that The American Friend, while certainly an intellectual exercise on behalf of Wenders, is still a rather remarkable, fascinating little film.

The film opens in Germany, where Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) is now making his living dealing in high end art forgeries. We first meet him dealing with his forger (the famed filmmaker Nicholas Ray), and then he’s off to an art auction. It is there that he meets Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), once a highly sought after art restorer, who now makes a measly living with his little picture framing shop. He has leukemia, and a wife and young son, who he is worried about leaving behind. At the auction, he snubs Ripley’s simple offer of a handshake – and this simple slight turns into something that will forever alter his life. It seems that an old associate of Ripley’s needs someone killed – and wants to use someone outside of his regular organization, which brought him to Ripley. Ripley does not want to job, but suggests Zimmermann. No, he’s not a professional killer, but he can be manipulated into doing it for the money. And thus, Ripley can have his revenge on him for slighting him.

Dennis Hopper’s take on Tom Ripley is slightly odd, but that simply adds to his appeal. He certainly enters the movie with a history, but the movie never hints at it – so unless you’ve read the other novels, you have no idea what it is. He seems to be playing the role of the “Ugly American”, with his big cowboy hat, and lazy drawl. He doesn’t seem like quite the cold, calculating sociopath from the books or the other movies. And yet, I couldn’t help but like Hopper’s performance. He keeps Ripley an enigma in the movie, keeps you guessing as to who he is. If his name wasn’t Ripley, it wouldn’t be as initially disconcerting as it is here. Besides, Wenders’ film certainly centers more on Zimmermann, and the great Bruno Ganz gives a fascinating performance in that role as well. It’s more straight forward than Hopper’s Ripley, but equally complex.

Wenders’ film is one that is all about style. It borrows elements from American crime movies, and even winks at the audience by casting directors like Ray and Samuel Fuller (chomping a cigar, naturally), who made their share of crime movies in America in small roles (the French director Jean Eustache also appears). The plot is deliberately confusing at times – we are stuck filing in a lot of the blanks ourselves – but this is part of Wenders point. Many crime films are on autopilot, so we can predict where it is going before it gets there – Wenders trusts we’ll do the same thing here.

Wim Wenders is a fascinating, German filmmaker – part of the German New Wave that emerged in the 1970s. I have never had a chance to see his films like Alice in the Cities or Kings of the Road, but into the 1980s, he made some truly great films like Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987). He seems fascinated by American film, and a film like The American Friend or Paris, Texas (or hell, even Don’t Come Knocking from a few years ago), takes the outline of an American film, and yet has a distinctly European art film feel to them. The disconnect is fascinating, and when it works, it works wonderfully well. It works in The American Friend. We are always aware we are watching a movie, that Wenders is behind the scenes pulling the strings, and yet somehow the film works. It is one of Wenders best films.

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