Wim Wenders’ gloomy interpretation of ‘Ripley’s Game’ is a stark contrast to Rene Clement’s sun-drenched first outing for Patricia Highsmith’s complex anti-hero. Though separated by the novel ‘Ripley Underground’, it takes some feat of the imagination to believe that Alain Delon’s suave killer could ever have transformed into Dennis Hopper’s world-weary art dealer. And yet, by the end of Wenders’ atmospheric thriller, it is difficult to imagine the middle-aged Ripley any other way.
Life has been less than kind to Tom Ripley. Although he manages to escape every scrape he gets into, his reward is little more than survival until his next misadventure. When he is approached by an old friend in trouble, he finds himself at the centre of gangland conflict. Unwilling to carry out a contract killing himself, he approaches a picture framer dying of a rare blood disease, promising his family a comfortable future after his death if he carries out a simple, deadly, job.
Wenders’ strength as a director during the 70s lay in exploring the troubled psyche of his male characters and mining the vein that lay between American and European cultures. The American Friend continued these themes, which are highlighted in the opening scenes. Hopper’s first encounter with Sam Fuller; two icons of American culture whose personas extended beyond their nationality. Likewise, no matter that much of the film takes place in Europe, Wenders plays film noir against the European art-house scene balancing scenes of hardboiled crime with cool existentialism.
The film succeeded – certainly in the same way that the recent remake failed – because Wenders understood that the story was the backdrop to a moving account of the deepening respect, if not friendship, between two men. As they embark on their adventures it becomes clear that Ripley and the picture framer are living an unfulfilled part of their lives through each other. In the case of the picture framer, Ripley is the life of adventure that he may have dreamed of, but never thought would he would live. For Ripley, the everyday banalities of a quiet family life are an equally alien, and therefore attractive, world. The bitter irony of Highsmith’s story is that the closer these men come to their dream, they more they risk their lives. Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz, their faces as grim and stoic as the harsh environments they live in, are well cast as the two leads. In his most famous international role prior to reuniting with Wenders for Wings of Desire, Ganz visibly deteriorates throughout the film, ending up as both a physical and emotional shell; his experience with Ripley making him feel more alive than he ever had, yet pulling him away from his life, at the same time.
Highsmith was unhappy with Wenders’ adaptation, and his vision of Ripley’s world is certainly far removed from the author’s. And yet, divorced from the novel, Wenders crafted a moving and suspenseful thriller that ranks alongside the best of his work from that time.