THE AMERICAN FRIEND was written, produced and directed by Wim Wenders, who took Patricia Highsmith’s 1974 novel “Ripley’s Game”, the third of her five featuring amoral con man/killer Ripley, and without bothering to secure rights or permission, blended in some of her second one, 1970s “Ripley Under Ground”.
American sociopath ‘Tom Ripley’ (Dennis Hopper) lives in Hamburg, Germany, working art forgery scams. Asked by another crook to murder a rival, Ripley connives to have the job done by terminally ill picture framer ‘Jonathan Zimmerman’ (Bruno Ganz), who’d snubbed him at an auction. While Ripley toys with Jonathan, Jonathan seeks to provide his family with money. The two end up bonding, but the unlikely (and hard to believe) friendship also involves more killing.
It’s a cult item, and fans of Wenders (he’s an acquired taste: I’ve yet to see the light) extol it to high heaven. The basic Highsmith story is interesting, but the first hour of the murky 127 minutes crawls by. Things perk up for a while, then it runs low on gas (but not Hopper’s hot air) at the finish.
Wenders made it for three million Deutsche Marks. I calcu-guessed that at something like $1,304,000 back then. Develop a tumor trying to convert that into today’s US dollars, factoring inflation. Better yet, convert a bottle of Rumple Minze Peppermint Schnapps into several glasses of buoyant “Ja, whatever…”
Wenders wife at the time, actress Lisa Kreuzer, plays the wife of Ganz. He salted the supporting cast with other directors, notably Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Gérard Blain, Peter Lilienthal, which fascinated film critics: regular audiences will draw a blank. Hopper improvised much of his dialogue (it shows, and that’s not a compliment). *
What works very well, though, is the excellent camera work from Robby Müller, with fine use of color highlighting the atmospheric location choices made by Wenders. A decided plus is the good work from the compelling Bruno Ganz, in his first major role.
* Oh, Dennis, just put a sock in it. I can take young Hopper playing a prairie punk begging to get plugged in Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, The Sons Of Katie Elder and True Grit and as a repellent psychotic freak in Blue Velvet, but have little patience with the gibberish of Easy Rider and the whole jerk-rebel persona that followed. Spoiled pseudo-Brando indulgence mixed with cocaine: naturally, later he turned into a right-winger. I don’t buy him in this movie at all.
Back to being nice: the best of the numerous film adaptations of Highsmith’s books: Strangers On A Train, Purple Noon, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces Of January, Carol.