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The American Friend

The American Friend
Anchor Bay
1977 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 127 min. / Der Amerikanische Freund / Street Date January 7, 2003 / $24.98
Starring Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Lisa Kreuzer, Gérard Blain, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller
Cinematography Robby Müller
Art Direction Heidi & Toni Lüdi
Film Editor Peter Przygodda
Original Music Jürgen Knieper
Written by Wim Wenders from the novel Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith
Produced by Renée Gundelach, Wim Wenders
Directed by Wim Wenders

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant really didn't catch up with Wim Wenders until his big crossover hit Wings of Desire (hinted at for DVD this year), and his style didn't soak in until he made a science fiction road picture, Until the End of the World that has since become one of my favorite films ever. But I did see The American Friend when it was new and thought it intriguing, even if the plot went way over my head. Seeing it again on this superior Anchor Bay DVD, the film is still fascinating, and so is its confusing story. A Deutsche mix of Wenders road picture and film noir situations, The American Friend is a satisfying thriller for thinking adults.


Slightly unbalanced art fraud entrepreneur Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) is an American in Hamburg, selling the paintings of the 'dead' artist Derwatt (Nicholas Ray) - who is quite alive and content in New York, secretly cranking out priceless originals. Tom's sometime pal Raul Minot (Gérard Blain) is a French mobster who needs some killing done, and he gets Tom to approach art consultant/framer Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) for the work. Zimmerman is happily married and wouldn't even begin to consider the offer - until tests (rigged by Minot) show that his blood condition is critical. Jonathan begins a weird odyssey into murder and deceit - but also friendship, as the capricious Ripley suddenly decides to give him some help.

The American Friend is a film that shows what Wim Wenders does best - character interaction, particularly with characters we're meant to like. Even the bad guys are sympathetic people in this film, as they order murders and cruelly con the hero into thinking he's dying. Zimmerman's bizarre murder pact creates ironies that take the place of the original bloodbath at the end of author Patricia Highsmith's thriller novel. The beginning is much like many another Highsmith story. Instead of bumping feet accidentally, as in Strangers on a Train, Zimmerman and Ripley cross fates at a chance meeting. Zimmerman's offhand snub makes invisible sparks fly, and we know Ripley will pull the meek German into some kind of trouble.

Dennis Hopper's character is named Tom Ripley, and it's unclear if he's meant to be the same character as in Purple Noon or its remake The Talented Mr. Ripley. As Hopper plays him, Ripley is older, mellowed (or burnt-out) but happily ensconced in a lucrative racket. Hopper upholsters the part with bits of improvised business stolen from Easy Rider or intuited on the spot. We get the feeling that he's lonely (he records his voice just to have someone to listen to) and kind of a soft touch for his more desperate and conniving pal Raoul Minot.

This is Bruno Ganz'es first film, and he's fascinating. Wenders has him continually bumping into things as if disoriented, and we're always wondering if the tension is making him absent-minded, or if his 'rare blood disease' is threatening to give him a stroke or something - his doctor doesn't want him to exert himself. The kind of work he takes on for the gangsters would give anyone a heart attack.

Wenders stages the story in slightly creepy neo-noir settings. Jonathan Zimmerman's life is being played out in subways and other kinds of underground passageways, whether in Paris or Hamburg or Munich. Even New York looks like the same kind of place, with key scenes happening within view of both Statues of Liberty. Jonathan's home is in a harbor area where entire blocks of buildings have been torn down.

The director says that he doesn't go in big for violence or villainous characters, and after casting Hopper, a fellow film director, he went ahead and put a director into every 'heavy' role. They're even distinguished that way in the final credit roll. Alongside a number of European regissieurs, heavyweight legends Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray have key parts. Ray's stint as the undead artist is the meatier one. He seems to exist in some painter's limbo, out there redoing his most famous work, dangerously altering the blue so that a sharp eye like Zimmerman's can pick it out.

Frame-maker Zimmerman is sort of an inventor, and Wenders takes pains to show elaborate toys he's made his son, and various gadgets, many of them optical illusions or proto-cinematic devices that he keeps to amuse himself. He even makes a homemade wire garrote to use in the train murder.

I frankly have to admit that even in the second viewing, I couldn't gain a firm purchase on the plot, and this after taking the opportunity to re-play a couple of verbal exchanges that were hard to make out. I don['t think we were meant to understand why the Gérard Blain character wants to kill the gangsters, or if the Sam Fuller character is a target that Jonathan misses. No matter. The American Friend is about the characters, and there's no figuring out the strange Ripley and his relationship with Zimmerman. If Ripley is meant to be homosexual, as in the earlier adaptations (and Hitchcock's Bruno character, too, I guess) then we're in ambiguous Secret Sharer territory. Zimmerman's wife (played by Lisa Kreuzer of several of Wenders' earlier road pictures) certainly reacts as if she's worried Jonathan's occupied with more than just some shady money games while out of town. I think the film works because of Zimmerman's relationship with Marianne. She's quite a heroine, to volunteer to help him out at the bitter end.

Cameraman Robby Müller's photography is simply amazing, capturing precise atmospheres, and recording some nice worried-looking skies that help express the troubled characters. The overland train murder scene was apparently shot half on a moving train, and half in a studio, and the matching of light and tone is remarkable, so invisible that one hardly believes rear-projection is involved. The final scene is a simple but risky-looking spinout that's more real than 100 fancy stunts, and all done under one of those blistery, perfect-light early morning skies.

Can't skip out of this without mentioning the low-key but involving music of Jürgen Knieper ... each return of the guitar motif is a welcome surprise in this sparsely scored film.

Anchor Bay's DVD of The American Friend is an extremely handsome disc, much better looking than the beat-up exchange print I saw at the New Beverly so many years ago. This instalment in AB's Wim Wenders Collection is every bit up to the standard of the company's earlier Werner Herzog films, picture and sound. Even the bright-red main titles don't buzz or jump about, as so often happens on video. The English subs are optional.

I enjoyed the Herzog commentaries, but listening to Wenders on this disc, accompanied by Dennis Hopper, is a delight. The two of them talk about all the personalities in the film, and their great stories distracted me from wanting to hear explanations for the plot points I somehow missed. Wenders is so mellow, he makes Mr. Rogers come off like a speed freak. His attention to detail and kind words for his collaborators make you want to go out and bake him a cake or something. Hopper is pleasantly serious and attentive throughout, contributing some tangential stories (including a cute one about John Ford and John Huston), but we're happy to listen. Wim too offers tales of Nicholas Ray and especially Sam Fuller. Fuller apparently would talk non-stop, regaling the director with story after story, yet in all the time they knew each other, never repeated one. The commentary goes into the context and careers of most of the leading players, and Wenders recounts his own early doubts about whether or not he was cut out to be a filmmaker. When Hopper ends by heaping praise on his director (the film helped re-ignite his acting career), Wenders quietly quips that, "Together, we are the founding members of our mutual admiration society". A great commentary.

Also on board is a lengthy series of original trims and outs, also with Wenders comments. They turn out to be more character detail cut of Marianne Zimmerman, her son, and Tom Ripley's housemaid, who doesn't show up in the finished film at all. No plot clarifications, but still good.

The American Friend has me eager to see the other earlier Wenders road movies promised from Anchor Bay. Now I'm looking forward to them as much as AB's impending Man Who Fell to Earth, the Lester Musketeer Box, and the Peter Sellers Collection.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The American Friend rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, deleted scenes, trailer
Packaging: AGI case
Reviewed: January 17, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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