The American Friend April 19, 2021
im Wenders’ The American Friend (1977) is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game (1974) — her third book centered around the con artist and murderer Tom Ripley. Wenders’ movie, though, might more appropriately be looked at as an adaptation in quotation marks. It's such an atmospheric repurposing of the story on which it's ostensibly based that it feels more inspired by what Highsmith
created than interested in giving her vision additional life. Played by Dennis Hopper in Wenders' movie, this Ripley resembles the anti-hero of Highsmith's novels so little they hardly seem to have anything to do with each other. Highsmith's Ripley was fundamentally a dapper, worldly psychopath whose comfort with manipulation was but another flourish of his personal style. Wenders offers us a troublemaking, reticent slacker. He’s enigmatic as to feel symbolic rather than real; his presence has an incidental quality. And in Wenders’ movie attention on Ripley is shifted more toward his victim in the book: a British picture framer named Jonathan Trevanny who is suffering from leukemia.
Ripley manipulates Trevanny into becoming an assassin by forging medical documents to make him think his condition is in far worse a state than it really is. (In the movie they initially cross paths because Ripley has as of late gotten involved with art forgery; they meet at an auction, where a fraudulent painting done by one of Ripley’s forger associates, played by legendary director Nicholas Ray, sells for DEM 62,000.) Trevanny is persuaded to kill because he wants to leave behind enough money for his wife and child. He makes a modest but relatively meager living, and if he dies his surviving family will likely be stuck in a financial dilemma. In The American Friend, the Jonathan character is played by Wenders regular Bruno Ganz. Trevanny becomes a Swiss-born German; the surname changes to Zimmermann, and the illness by which he’s afflicted is a blood disease his doctor confirms repeatedly he doesn’t need to be too worried about. He’s been living with it since around 1971; new problems aren’t about to flare up suddenly.
The American Friend isn’t that successful as a thriller. Creating striking noir images and further studying a victim character's interior life seem to be Wenders' primary objectives. It triumphs particularly on the former front. One won’t forget the sight of a neon Canada Dry sign bathing a billiards room in a green that makes it look like it was a hallway in Emerald City. An ambulance exploding on a secluded beach, foregrounded by the red slug bug that has followed it there. (I won't get into the why undergirding this incident.) The ocean-blue oppressiveness of the subway. A long shot featuring the violently red Parisian sky, popping against the teal of several skyscrapers and the lime and orange of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant also included in the frame. Hopper, clad in a beige jumpsuit, sprawled out on a huge bed covered in sheets the color of blood.
The American Friend is less steadily dramatically involving. This isn’t so much the case during the first hour or so. The movie's first few acts effectively capture the soulful Zimmermann; we get emotionally attached to him, worried over his plight. As played wonderfully by Ganz, Zimmermann has such a gentleness it’s almost touching. He doesn’t stick to his guns when an elderly customer pushes him into giving her a discount his business can’t afford. And when we see him in another scene play with a little gold sheath in his frame store’s backroom, the delicacy with which he treats the fragile object seems an indicator of how he treats those around him more generally. (The closest thing to aggression Zimmermann shows during the first act is his refusal to shake Ripley’s hand during the auction; “I’ve heard of you,” he says with surprising coldness — he can’t hide his disdain for the dishonest.)
The sequence in which Zimmerman goes through with his first kill — he stalks his victim on the subway, then shoots him almost impulsively while they’re on escalator stairs — is commandingly intense. So is the one centered around his second gig. (His anxiety feels realer because we can see ourselves in him.) The first sequence especially has the lift of a nightmare you can’t wake up from; it will seem mild a few days down the line when everything has gotten worse. When Zimmermann emerges from the station, he breathes in the crisp air like he’s finally woken up from this bad dream — a testament to his relative naïvete. The follow-up hit is set on a train, is assisted by Ripley when it goes haywire, and altogether recalls the Hitchcockian locomotive rushes of 1951’s Strangers on a Train (another Highsmith adaptation) and North by Northwest (1959). (We also think of Hitchcock whenever the film’s sublime score, by Jürgen Knieper, appears; it blares with discordant menace, uncannily invoking Bernard Herrmann.)
Terseness mostly slackens toward The American Friend’s back half, when consequences announce themselves and when Ripley and Zimmermann grow to like each other more. (The latter gets a little lost in this new friendship; Ripley, meanwhile, didn’t expect to come to like the man he had at first considered not much more than a pawn so much.) But this friendship isn’t very believable, and so scenes focusing on their building kinship drag. Hopper, always wearing a cowboy hat and often denim-on-denim to remind us of his fish-out-of-water Americanness, inhabits this role with such enervation that we don’t know how we should think of his Ripley, whereas in the books we have a good idea of who this character is. (I also wasn’t that taken with the idea that Zimmermann would come to so prioritize Ripley over his family, whom he has been so dedicated to; if a new life of crime has awoken in him something previously untapped, that isn’t clearly expressed.)
The thriller sequences are like little explosions, but their effects don't linger very long — Wenders has trouble maintaining tension. The narrative ultimately
doesn’t have the right shape for the sort of thriller where things get progressively worse after an otherwise morally sound hero makes a major transgression. The climax doesn’t snap the way an overtaxed rubber band would; what precedes it doesn’t have the apposite increasing tightness. I don’t think the movie’s ultimate ambition, anyway, was to unfold before us as a conventionally satisfying thriller. (It’s more taken with world-building than generating suspense.) Still, I couldn’t help but want The American Friend to have more of a kick than it does; the overlong movie doesn’t so much satisfactorily conclude (though the final image has a staying power) as sleepwalk to a finish line, upending some of the magnetism of the absorbing opening stretch. B+