“It’s gonna be a long road and we gotta take it.” Wim Wenders’ film The American Friend, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, is re-released in a loving 4K restoration from the original negative and sound tapes allowing you to re-engage with this gripping noir/thriller about identity and subterfuge. Dennis Hopper stars as the eponymous American, Tom Ripley.
“I’d like to be your friend but friendship isn’t possible.”
Scandalous behaviour in the world of art auctions is rife and in the hands of rival racketeers. Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) uses his art forger Derwatt (Nicholas Ray) to produce works for the auction houses to profit from gullible investors. Some of the forgeries sold in Germany are framed by Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), even if he can detect the fraudulent canvasses deceptions by something as often apparently minor as a type of blue paint. Jonathan has health problems and is seeking medical appraisal to determine whether his leukaemia is potentially fatal. With a son and his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) to consider he wishes to secure their financial future for them should he pass away from a terminal condition. An opportunity arises to obtain a sizeable sum but the terms of obtaining it are extreme. Sinister Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain) offers him medical appraisals and a sum total of 250,000DM (be he dead or alive) if he fulfils the necessary criteria, the execution of an alleged criminal on foreign soil. But can he accept such a horrific task? And where does his charming con-artist extraordinaire acquaintance Ripley fit into the whole nefarious scheme of things?
In his introduction Wim Wenders reveals that the film’s original title was “Framed”, an appropriate word association title that relates to the central protagonist Zimmermann in that he is a picture framer by trade and becomes framed by the situations enforced upon him by his nefarious employers on the dubious side of the art-fraud syndication gangs. This title with its multiple meanings had to be changed as its cross-meaning hadn’t the same context in German so Der Amerikanische Freund was used – just as ironic within the context of the deliberately twisting narrative. Wenders had began his forays into the world of noir, character mysteries and (potential, often also unresolved) resolutions in his commercial feature debut The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter 1972)
Ripley collects his thoughts through the use of a cassette recorder, relating the story in more ways than one by paraphrasing the inauguration address of Franklin D. Roosevelt that recalls his own hypothesis of “nothing to fear but fear itself.” The character Ripley has been portrayed many times on film, perhaps notably by Alain Delon in his first screen encounter in Plein Soleil (1960). Hopper’s Ripley offers a assortment of behaviours and manners depending on who he needs to interact with, but his physical persona, enhanced by his Stetson hat, as is pointed out “You’d better watch your step cowboy,” is a defining element of his character. Zimmermann is, as proves to be his downfall within the company he has found himself in with, a more balanced individual, torn between his technical trade skills and his love for family life. His opinion that “I don’t like people who buy paintings as an investment,” highlights a dichotomy between his trade and relationship with the art forgeries created. His past relations to this work is not lost on his wife who is concerned about his mysterious outings, confronting him with “I’m sure this is connected to Ripley and Gunter’s shady dealings.” But faced with the forceful and forward Raoul Minot’s (Gérard Blain) question to him, “Wouldn’t you like to leave them money when you die?” Jonathan finds himself persuaded into committing the most horrific of crimes – murder.
Wenders’ regular director of photography Robby Müller adds the distinctive realism of his cinematography to ensure that proceedings appear to be all too natural as events unfold, so that criminality becomes normality. This ensures that the tasks assigned to Jonathan are thoroughly engaging as the murder sequences segue from a distant camera following the protagonist in his first attack at a metro station to camerawork that is far more immediate when Jonathan attempts to commit murder on a train. The killings are filmed in a clinical manner, reflecting the fact that Jonathan has been ordered to execute people with whom he has no connection, but they don’t shy from depicting the moral agony that he has to come to terms with.
The American Friend is a wonderful updating of the noir film that offers the balance and restraint of 1970’s film-making with the shock reality of the criminality that is inherent in the genre. The delicate pace adds to the understanding the characters, revealing Jonathan’s downward spiral into transgression that is more believable even as the narrative drives onwards. Helpfully edited between tracking environment and claustrophobic directness this is an essential, if unconventional, thriller.
Included with this Blu-Ray are a number of additions including an introduction from Wenders, some of the deleted scenes and a commentary with Wim Wenders and Dennis Hopper. Also provided is a booklet with essays by Wenders (including references to his relationship before and after filming with Patricia Highsmith, who was apparently not so impressed with the interpretation of her work on first viewing but revised her opinion on second viewing) and a Walter Salles essay on the film. Essential purchase for a film that demands rewatching in its now crisp restoration.