THE AMERICAN FRIEND directed by Wim Wenders. Starring Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Lisa Kreuzer, Gérard Blain, Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray. Screenplay by Wim Wenders (adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley’s Game”). Produced by Bavaria Film, 1977.
Seeing as my last “Lost and Found” piece focused on a film directed by iconoclastic German film auteur Wim Wenders, it got me thinking about an attempt I made many years ago to ballyhoo another project of his, an adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. THE AMERICAN FRIEND was the subject of a review I wrote for the old CineFiles blog (that’s still going strong, by the way. Thanks to our very own Jeff Gallashaw). And so I thought I would revisit it – both the film and that article – and see if my thoughts have changed.
They haven’t. I still love this film very, very much.
If you follow our show and paid close enough attention (even more so to the discussions we’ve had in our Facebook group) you might have gathered how I’m a fan of crime thriller literature. And a lot of the writers I enjoy were introduced to me by way of the movies adapted from them. I became a fan of Ian Fleming by way of the James Bond flicks. Fan of Dashiell Hammett by way of THE MALTESE FALCON and MILLER’S CROSSING (an unofficial take on The Glass Key) not excluding those psuedo Red Harvest variants YOJIMBO and A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Became a fan of Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) via the various Parker adaptations not using that character’s name like POINT BLANK and THE OUTFIT. And Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Conan Doyle, etc., hit my radar through the celluloid versions inspired by their writings. So it goes without saying that Patricia Highsmith – with her Roald Dahl-esque, slightly macabre, always darkly funny take on the literary Noir genre – is no exception.
I had first seen Wim Wenders’ THE AMERICAN FRIEND while a film student in college. I was also vaguely aware it was based on a novel written by the same person whose other work inspired Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. But I had not become a Highsmith fan at the time. It wasn’t until many years later, while working at a book store in Manhattan, I decided to take a chance on novel titled The Talented Mr. Ripley. Having stumbled across the plot synopsis on the back of the cover, I deduced this involved the same character that made such an impression in Wenders’ 1977 thriller. So I read it and was immediately hooked. The Ripley series unfolds pretty much in real time. With each novel in the series, Tom Ripley is exactly how old that character should be at the time each entry is published. In Talented Mr. Ripley, it is the mid 1950s and he is approximately in his late teens-early 20s. By the time Ripley’s Game comes around, it is 1970 and Ripley is approximately in his mid to late 30s. Ripley’s Game is also the third novel in the series and the source for Wenders’ adaptation. The ingenious thing about the series is in how events from one story might have repercussions in future novels. And a lot of fun is derived from trying to out guess whether Highsmith will resolve Ripley’s conflicts. You see, Tom Ripley is the consummate sociopath. Charming. If not a bit bored with life. Has no moral barometer what so ever. A very effective con man whose fiscal and social success in life was built on the blood and crimes of his past. But he does have certain rules that define him civilly. He can be loyal to his friends (the few he actually has) and is capable of pity and some regret. And although he is not above indulging in the occasional murder attempt, it is a route he is unwilling to take unless absolutely necessary.
He can also be very, very petty.
Various actors have already done their bit to interpret, then reinterpret the character: Alain Delon and Matt Damon in two vastly different versions of Talented (Rene Clement’s PURPLE NOON and Anthony Minghella’s TALENTED MR. RIPLEY), Barry Pepper in RIPLEY UNDER GROUND (based on the novel of the same name) and John Malkovich in a more faithful version of RIPLEY’S GAME. And I have mixed feelings about these theatrical takes as a whole. PURPLE NOON is a brilliant genre exercise but not faithful to Highsmith’s source whereas Damon’s film is somewhat more faithful but didn’t have that sense of cold calculation I’ve always associated with the character. Although I like the actor, I felt Barry Pepper’s take (and the movie itself) was rather uninspired. Whereas Malkovich nailed the essence of the character for me (Malkovich himself is almost the walking embodiment of Highsmith’s protagonist), this second adaptation of Ripley’s Game is rather unmemorable and boring in its presentation. So I find it ironic that the least faithful of all the Ripley adventures – Clement’s PURPLE NOON and Wender’s AMERICAN FRIEND – are for me the best film versions.
Apparently the genesis of THE AMERICAN FRIEND existed in Wenders’ attempt to adapt another Highsmith novel that someone else already held the film rights to. And so it was Highsmith who presented her pre-published Ripley’s Game manuscript as an alternate option. Initially she wasn’t too keen on Wenders’ take. But she would eventually come around and consider it a worthy adaptation. The basic story is there: after being snubbed by an arrogant frame maker, Ripley spreads a rumor suggesting the man is dying and, ergo, might be the perfect candidate to complete two assassinations… a job Ripley himself has turned down. Concerned that he is dying (aided by a doctor’s fake analysis that is set up by the man who wants to hire him), the frame maker reluctantly takes on the gig so that he can have some sort of cash to leave behind for his poor family. While he succeeds in his first attempt, it forces him into a moral, mental breakdown. And it is during that second assassination attempt, Ripley reenters at the halfway point and thus Ripley’s Game and THE AMERICAN FRIEND becomes this sort of macabre buddy story. Ripley starts to feel sorry for the frame maker and decides out of obligation to help him out and watch over him while receiving no credit for the crimes.
It is a perverse, reverse reimagining of Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train, the novel once filmed by Alfred Hitchcock and soon to be “remade” by David Fincher. Where two characters enter into an unholy pact, a pact that one morally righteous character refuses to partake in. Even so, he is still brought down by the machinations of the other character while attempting to work against him. In Ripley’s Game and THE AMERICAN FRIEND, while the morally righteous character does partake reluctantly, he partakes nonetheless and decides to work with the other character.
The plot aside, the differences between the movie and its source are considerable. In the book Ripley has a wife. In the film he is single. In the book the frame maker is a British ex-pat named Trevanny. In the movie he is a German named Jonathan. The movie mixes in some of the plot from Ripley Under Ground with regard to faking the death of a famous artist to increase the value of his work. But in that novel the artist has died while they continue to forge the dead artist’s “lost” works. The film’s ending also differs from the novel. Big spoiler here: in the novel the frame maker is gravely wounded during a shoot out. In the film it turns out, in a delicious twist of irony, that Jonathan has been dying of a disease after all and collapses after he and his wife abandon Ripley on an open road.
But the biggest difference is probably Dennis Hopper’s take on the Ripley character. Almost an antithesis to the pretentious, suave, American europhile that is Highsmith’s antihero, Hopper is more of a sophisticated, existential, establishment friendly “cousin” to his character from EASY RIDER. Originally Wenders offered the role to John Cassavettes who would have been a sight to behold in the role. But Hopper is presented as a force of nature. A cigarette dangles from his mouth as he helps Jonathan take down a target’s henchman on a speeding train. And yet the same character quotes Bob Dylan. He even recites the lyrics from the theme song of Hopper’s own EASY RIDER. In fact, popular music informs THE AMERICAN FRIEND a great deal as does pop culture. All the criminal elements are portrayed by established film makers: Nicholas Ray, Gérard Blain and the great Sam Fuller. And Wenders keeps the camera moving (interesting in that he originally planned to keep the camera static), thus generating energy not unlike the French crime thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville.
And even though THE AMERICAN FRIEND is a German production, it has a more outwardly international feel to it. Although several languages are spoken in the film, it never feels alienating or specific to any particular audience. It is a surprisingly accessible film.
As of now, THE AMERICAN FRIEND does not seem to be readily available through the usual outlets but you might be able to procure a European DVD release from Amazon.com or Ebay. But please seek this out if you haven’t already. Also, major props to Bruno Ganz who portrays Jonathan. Best known to American audiences as the guy who played Hitler in DOWNFALL, the Swiss born actor was like the German film industry’s answer to Gerard Depardieu and would turn up in everything during the 70s and 80s. During the first half of THE AMERICAN FRIEND, Ganz carries the entire movie on his shoulders and elicits the appropriate amount of dread and pity.