The American Friend

The American Friend ★★★★

I had a hard time picturing this film before I actually watched it. For anyone familiar with Matt Damon’s acclaimed portrayal of the brilliant, titular con artist in Anthony Minghella’s lavish “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, it might seem odd to be reintroduced to the character in a late 1970s West German avant-garde adaptation mostly taking place in Hamburg. These two interpretations of Patricia Highsmith’s conflicted career criminal have little to nothing in common. “The American Friend” is a gloomy thriller set in a town renowned for its port, which illustrious director Wim Wenders highlights in numerous shots, and its peculiar relationship with morals. This is precisely the kind of habitat in which an American cowboy might prosper.

I am not especially well-versed in Dennis Hopper’s body of work, but he is a strikingly big name in this European production that was submitted as the West German candidate for the Foreign Film Oscar in 1978. He plays Tom Ripley as Hannibal Lecter lite, a cunning, affluent member of high society, with a smile teetering on the edge between charming and devious. The American expatriate, who runs a thriving art forgery scheme, feels suffocated by crushing loneliness and lack of self-fulfillment. His house is stuffed with American memorabilia, but it’s difficult to believe this shell of a person truly feels at home anywhere in the world. It doesn’t help that he is easily offended, which turns out to be particularly costly for a picture framer who refuses to shake his hand when they are introduced to each other at an auction. Ripley’s Stetson, while on the surface utterly out of place on the streets of Hamburg, is a deliberate fashion choice. This is a man used to operating outside the law. It’s no coincidence that not a single police officer ever shows up during the entirety of the film.

The late Bruno Ganz plays Jonathan, a terminally ill husband and father, who is worried how his family will cope after his death. He is invited to Paris for treatment and strikes a bargain with the devil that soon finds him in a subway station, pursuing the target he has been paid to assassinate. It’s an excellent scene of subtly sustained tension. Wenders’s measured pacing doesn’t prompt too much of an elevated heart rate at any point and even his most thrilling sequences only slightly tighten the screws. But he does let them go on for some time, significantly raising the ambiguity of the outcome. The mark suspects something might be wrong, but Jonathan, understandably nervous, seems unsure whether he has the stomach to actually pull the trigger of the gun hidden in his coat pocket. It takes a while before his mind is made up.

The film moves a bit too slowly, spending its first hour mostly with Jonathan starting to crack under the pressure of his sickness and considering his options. His condition undoubtedly makes him an interesting protagonist, but Ripley is the kind of enabling, enigmatic character whose presence tends to throw a wrench into whatever story you think you have been watching up until that point. He comports himself with the kindness of a trusted friend, but despite his pleasant demeanor and astounding willingness to assist Jonathan during the second half, the underlying caveat that he was ultimately responsible for this dire situation never fully dissipates.

“The American Friend” is the archetypal Criterion release, a respectable effort that provides an enlightening glimpse into the filmmaking trends of another country during a bygone era. And especially given the prominence of one of the protagonists, I’d recommend giving this one a shot.

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