The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund)

The American Friend
(Der amerikanische Freund)
Director: Wim Wenders
Screenplay: Wim Wenders (based on the novel Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith)
Stars: 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), Andreas Dedecke (Daniel), David Blue (Allan Winter), Stefan Lennert (Auktionator)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1977
Country: West Germany / France
The American Friend Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The American FriendThe American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund), a dark, angst-ridden adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1974 novel Ripley’s Game, was writer/director Wim Wenders’s international breakthrough. As one of the youngest members of the New German Cinema, which also included Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Volker Schlöndorff, Wenders was known at the time primarily for a handful of offbeat black-and-white mood pieces (known collectively as “The Road Trilogy”). The last film in that series, Kings of the Road (1976), won the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes, thus giving Wenders significant international exposure and some degree of clout.

For years Wenders had been intent on adapting one of prolific crime novelist Patricia Highsmith’s novel (at the time she had published 15), but he found that each one of them had already been optioned by someone else (Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley had already been adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock and René Clément in 1951 and 1960, respectively). When Highsmith learned that this eager young German filmmaker wanted to adapt one of her novels, she invited him to her house in France and, apparently impressed with his resolve, allowed him to read the unpublished manuscript for her latest novel, Ripley’s Game, which was the third in a series about the con artist and career criminal Tom Ripley. Wenders read the manuscript on the train ride home and immediately decided to option it.

In adapting the novel to film, Wenders maintains the basic arc of the narrative, which centers on the relationship between Ripley (Dennis Hopper) and Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), a Swiss expat living in Hamburg. Zimmermann works as a picture framer and art restorer, although his work has suffered recently due to his contracting an unnamed blood disease. Ripley and Zimmermann cross paths at an auction, where Ripley is selling a forged painting as part of an elaborate scheme that involves a famous, supposedly deceased painter named Derwatt (Nicholas Ray) creating new works to be “found” and sold (this plot device is actually borrowed from a different Ripley novel and is not present in Ripley’s Game). Zimmermann, aware of Ripley’s reputation as a con artist and suspicious of the painting’s legitimacy, casually rebukes Ripley’s handshake when they are introduced, a seemingly unimportant slight that Ripley does not forget. Instead, when a French gangster named Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain) approaches Ripley about a murder-for-hire, Ripley instead suggests Zimmermann and works with Minot to trick him into thinking his blood disease is fatal and he only has a short period of time left to live. Thus, the mild-mannered, soft-spoken Zimmermann, who seems to disappear behind his bushy moustache and hangdog eyes, is enticed to commit murder because he thinks the money will help support his wife and child.

However, Ripley begins to feel regret about involving Zimmermann in organized crime, and when Minot convinces him to commit a second murder, Ripley becomes directly involved by aiding in the assassination and then trying to extract Zimmermann from further entanglement. By that time it is, of course, too late, as the two murders have been traced back to Minot and, by proxy, Ripley and Zimmermann, who must now protect themselves from assassins. Meanwhile, Zimmermann is still trying to hide his activities from his increasingly suspicious wife, Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer), who finds his explanations of traveling to Paris and Munich to see specialists who pay him for being a medical guinea pig less and less convincing.

Although it is a thriller by genre, Wenders is clearly interested in things beyond the mechanics of Ripley’s manipulations and Zimmermann’s desperation (which is a classic film noir set-up, with Ripley playing the role of the femme fatale). Working, as always, with cinematographer Robby Müller (who shot all of his previous and most of his subsequent films), Wenders creates a thick, despondent atmosphere for The American Friend that emphasizes the film’s underlying themes of alienation and desperation in the modern city. Wenders has said that he modeled the film’s look on Edward Hopper paintings, which we see particularly in the contrast of darkness and bright splotches of intense primary colors (a red-and-white scarf, an orange Volkswagen, a child in a bright yellow jacket). Müller also lit the majority of the film with fluorescent lights, an innovation at the time that gives the film a slightly artificial, heightened look, especially in the interiors.

With the exception of its final scenes and a lengthy train sequence, the film is completely urban in location, taking place in the streets, alleys, and subways of a number of major cities, including Hamburg, Paris, Munich, and New York. The interchangeability of the cityscapes suggests a flattening of culture, as does the international criminal intrigue that finds French, American, and German gangsters all vying for power and control (Wenders amusingly had all the criminal roles played by directors; in addition to Hopper, Ray, and Blain, we see Samuel Fuller, Jean Eustache, Daniel Schmid, and Peter Lilienthal).

Ripley, whose abject American-ness is signified by the absurd cowboy hat and boots he regularly dons, is a enigmatic figure who floats in and out of all worlds. Hopper makes the character his own (which is why Highsmith did not initially like the film), and he makes some weird choices that Wenders is more than willing to go with, such as having Ripley regularly mumbling existential thoughts into a tape-recorder and snapping Polaroids of himself as if he’s afraid that he might suddenly disappear without a trace. He is often shot against or bathed in strong color, such as the crimson bed on which is lounges in an early scene and the sickly green light around the pool table in his ramshackle mansion, which contrasts sharply with the visual drabness that surrounds Zimmermann (the apartment he shares with his wife and pre-adolescent son is always murky-dark, with the exception of a prominent speeding train nightlight by his son’s bed).

Ripley is a true character in the colloquial sense, although one that isn’t wholly effective, especially when compared with the intriguing, more believable interpretations offered by the smoldering Alain Delon in Rene Clément’s Purple Noon (1960), the shrewd Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and the malevolent John Malkovich in Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game (2002). Ripley’s motivations in The American Friend are almost too opaque, to the point that, rather than being mysterious, he is just inscrutable. The same goes for Ganz’s performance, as he plays Zimmermann as so fundamentally introverted that his character arc feels truncated and slightly hollow. There is a breathless moment after he commits the first murder and rushes out of the subway station into the night air that suggests something dangerous is boiling in his mind, but it quickly dissipates as he goes back to his reserved, genially morose self. He is likeable enough and sympathetic as a manipulated sop of a protagonist, but I kept wishing he would give us more.

The American Friend Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioGerman/English/French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary from 2002 by director Wim Wenders and actor Dennis Hopper
  • Video interview with Wim Wenders
  • Video interview with actor Bruno Ganz
  • Deleted scenes with audio commentary by Wenders
  • Trailer
  • Essay by author Francine Prose
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 12, 2016

    Criterion’s new Blu-ray of The American Friend features a restored 4K digital transfer that was commissioned by the Wim Wenders Stiftung | A Foundation and supervised by Wenders. The transfer, which was made from the original 35mm negative and restored at ARRI Film & TV Services in Berlin, is a striking improvement over the previously available DVD from Anchor Bay, which looks slightly greenish and soft in comparison. The Criterion transfer is also properly framed at 1.66:1 (rather than 1.78:1), and it has a running time almost two minutes longer, although I am not sure where the difference lies. The transfer on the Criterion disc looks great, with excellent detail, black levels, and color saturation. There is a solid grain presence in the image, and signs of age and wear are virtually nonexistent. Wenders chose to have the original monaural soundtrack remixed into a 5.1-channel track from the original tapes, which is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. The track is clean and clear, and the multi-channel mix does a nice job in opening open both the ambient sounds of the city and Jürgen Knieper’s powerful musical score. Most of the sound was recorded on location (Wenders notes in his commentary that 99% of it was recorded live), so there is some inherent roughness in a few places.
    Criterion has ported over the 2002 audio commentary by director Wim Wenders and actor Dennis Hopper that first appeared on Anchor Bay’s DVD. Since Hopper passed away in 2010, it is particularly poignant to hear him discussing his work on the film, although the majority of the commentary is given over to Wenders. Also from the Anchor Bay disc we get 35 minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Wenders and a theatrical trailer. New to Criterion’s edition is a pair of lengthy, newly recorded video interviews: one with Wenders (39 min.) and one with actor Bruno Ganz (27 min.).

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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