The American Friend (1977)
Written & Directed by Wim Wenders
There’s a scene early on in The American Friend where Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) is asked by a hatmaker/art forger (director Nicholas Ray) if Ripley wears his Stetson hat when he’s in Germany. Ripley removes the hat, briefly examines it, and responds, “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Wim Wenders’ films, while German, are very much fixated on America. The director finds an incredible amount of inspiration in the mythic idea of America and the way these grand ideas crumble under just the slightest scrutiny. Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is the perfect character to explore that, and Wenders proceeds to repurpose this figure in the same way Robert Altman presented audiences with a radically different Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. This Ripley is not a cool, calm, collected man but a psychologically troubled murderer who manipulates an unsuspecting man into his web.
Ripley is living in Hamburg, Germany, having made a fortune through forged art sales. He’s at an auction where he artificially increases the value of his forgeries by driving up the bidding when he meets Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), a picture-frame maker. Jonathan slights Ripley by refusing to shake his hand and implying he knows the man’s criminal work. Later, Ripley is asked to murder a gangster by French criminal Raoul Minot, and Ripley decides this would be an excellent chance to get back at Jonathan’s rudeness. Ripley manages to spread rumors that Jonathan’s leukemia is getting worse. The sick man believes his doctor is keeping the truth from him and is approached by Raoul, who offers an opportunity. He will pay to fly Jonathan to Paris and pay for a doctor to do a series of in-depth blood tests. The only thing Jonathan will need to do is kill his rival. With the realization that his wife and son will be left with very little when his leukemia finally takes him, Jonathan agrees to take the job. This leads to a descent into the criminal underbelly, where Jonathan is unsure about ever being able to escape.
Jonathan is presented as the kind-hearted, virtuous protagonist you would expect in a story of this kind. He cares deeply about his family, works hard at his job, doesn’t even chase down an old woman who forgets to pay him, and immediately feels guilty for snubbing Ripley when the latter visits his framing store. The American Friend is a story about the corruption of a good soul by a very American antagonist. The audience is forced to sit by as we know that Ripley & Raoul manipulate and lie to Jonathan. The tension is palpable in that first hit and the subsequent ones Jonathan is coerced into performing. Jonathan frets & paces in the Paris Metro as he walks past his target multiple times, trying to work up the nerve to take a life. When he finally crosses that line, the viewer can feel the weight of it slam into Jonathan’s shoulders, crushing him.
On the surface, this can be viewed as a standard thriller/crime movie, but Wenders also presents a mythic war of good & evil. We watch this insane, yammering imp Ripley finds ways to press the right buttons and drive a decent man to do terrible things. However, Ripley is fascinated at what happens when Jonathan crosses that first moral line, which opens doors for him to be capable of even worse things, of killing with less remorse as time passes. The catch is that the longer this goes on, the less Ripley can predict about Jonathan, and even Jonathan seems to surprise himself with what he’s capable of doing.
Because Bruno Ganz has a natural talent for playing sympathetic characters, the audience will side with them (see Wenders’ Wings of Desire); we find ourselves in an interesting situation where we root for him to kill this stranger. Morally we can justify this to ourselves because the target is part of organized crime, so that makes it okay, right? There’s a likely chance we are less concerned with what it means to kill a person than Jonathan in these scenes. However, I suspect we would behave similarly to him if faced with these circumstances. His amateurishness shines through when, after the assassination attempt goes sour, he runs away (he was told to walk by Raoul), bumping into walls and tripping over objects. This is not a man who knows what he is doing, and it shows.
The production elements around this movie allow it to become something larger than the seemingly paperback thriller plot. Cinematographer Robby Müller lights the scenes with a cold blue tone that reminded me of films by Michael Mann (Thief, Heat), giving a movie from the mid-1970s a much more modern feel. The score takes on elements of Bernard Hermann’s work with Hitchcock but never once comes across as derivative. That’s not the only style of music used with ambient synth compositions underlining quiet, contemplative scenes. Pop songs are also used to perfection, including The Kinks’ “Nothin’ In The World Can Stop Me Worryin’ Bout That Girl.” All aspects of the picture are played with high sophistication while never coming across as pretentious. Of the three New German Cinema “big names,” Wenders is quickly becoming my favorite.
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