The American Friend

The American Friend ★★★½

The Criterion Collection - Spine #793


There’s something delightful about watching the various portrayals of Tom Ripley over the years. Actors such as Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, & Matt Damon have portrayed the man who is the star of Patricia Highsmith’s five novels. And they’ve all provided different glimpses of the man over the years.

He is a man with no conscience. And he’s a murderer. Therefore, we must balk at his actions in films such as The Talented Mr. Ripley, Purple Noon, & The American Friend. But he’s also the center of attention within these films and maintains an air of mystery that inspires caution and fascination amongst characters in each of these films. And for good reason. Each actor is able to balance the necessary charisma and charm with the other unsavory attributes so as to not alienate the audience. Alain Delon was the best at this, in my opinion.

Dennis Hopper, who plays Tom Ripley in the American Friend, strikes a balance as well. Although he possesses none of the charm of Damon or Delon. Throughout the film, I kept wondering why Wim Wenders was keeping him at a distance from the audience. But this distance adds to the mystery of the con-artist. It also helps to separate Hopper’s Ripley from the Ripley played by Delon in Purple Noon, who’s much more outgoing and at the forefront of René Clément’s 1960 film.

Because of this, Ripley isn’t our main focus this time around. Highsmith’s third novel instead centers the action around Jonathan Zimmerman, a picture framer by trade who gets roped into the dangerous world of mob reprisals as a result of his tenuous connection with Tom Ripley. Given how sporadic Hopper’s appearances are in the film, Wenders adaptation still allows him to operate with a degree of stealthiness and cunning in his affairs that lets you know that he’s not to be trusted. And it’s clear that if he would’ve never crossed paths with Zimmerman, that Zimmerman’s life would be far less complicated.

But Zimmerman, played by the fantastic Bruno Ganz, is already in dire straits due to a terminal leukemia diagnosis that already has him living on borrowed time. So placing himself in harms way isn’t a major concern when he’s already knee deep in a crisis over which he has no control. Ripley seems to offer some form of regulation over the issue, but it eventually becomes clear that he’s just stringing Zimmerman along. It’s also clear that he is reliable in the way that most sociopath’s are: only out of necessity as it relates to their own needs and desires.

Which is why it’s utterly baffling when Ripley does prove himself dependable and shows up for Zimmerman at the most opportune time. We’ll never know why he does the things he does. And Hopper’s demeanor appears so on edge that it’s we’re unsure if we want to know why. I’m of the belief that it’s no fun having all the answers, so I can accept the direction that this movie takes us in. Besides, the answers that Ripley provides are always suspect in one way or another. And I’ve seen enough Ripley films (or films dealing with sociopaths) to know that you never trust a word coming out of the mouth of someone like Tom Ripley.

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