The American Friend (1977)

“I like this room. It’s got a good feel to it. It’s quiet and peaceful. Just like you. I envy you. The smell of paint and wood. Must be good to work here. Then when you finish something, you can see what you’ve done.”

‘The American Friend’, directed by Wim Wenders in 1977, is a German adaptation of two of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. Unlike the other Wenders movies I’ve watched (‘Alice in the Cities’ and ‘Wings of Desire’), ‘The American Friend’ is, at heart, a standard thriller. Dennis Hopper plays Tom Ripley, a criminal and fraud who becomes involved in an art scam. He meets a terminally ill picture-framer, Jonathan Zimmermann, played by Bruno Ganz, who initially snubs him. In retaliation, Ripley manipulated Zimmerman to make him believe he is dying faster than he actually is. Zimmerman is then reluctantly recruited by a French criminal to conduct a series of assassinations, which leads Ripley to first feel remorse, then to get involved, and finally to seek revenge. It’s a tight, efficient movie that contains a number of genuinely gripping sequences, notably Zimmerman’s first murder in which he amateurishly stalks his prey through the Paris metro system. As with ‘Alice in the Cities’, there is a curious sense of dislocation with the combination of American movie conventions in a European setting and Wenders fosters this with the repeated references to American music throughout the film. Hopper’s presence also exacerbates this. Hopper plays Ripley as an ex-pat determined to cling on to the outward appearance of being American, with cowboy hat and a penchant for guns. Underneath this, however, is an edgy and charismatic performance, entirely suited to the edgy and charismatic character of Ripley. It is Ganz as the ailing innocent that really makes the movie, however. Zimmerman is the real centre of the film, with Ripley as the part-guardian angel and part-malevolent influence directing the dying character. It’s fascinating to see this in the context of the other Ripley movies. Fittingly for a character who had a habit of assuming different lives and personalities, each of these films presents a different Ripley, played by a different actor, amongst others John Malkovich, Matt Damon, Alain Delon, Barry Pepper and Ian Hart. This makes the screen Ripley as intangible and difficult to pin-down as Highsmith’s original.

Would I recommend it? Yes – I’m still mostly fascinated by Wenders’ obsession with America and American culture, so I’d suggest a double bill with ‘Alice in the Cities’.

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