The American Friend

The American Friend ★★★★½

"What's wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?"

Patricia Highsmith's third Tom Ripley novel, Ripley's Game, was actually the second to be turned into a film (after René Clément's Purple Noon), adapted and directed by Wim Wenders, who changed the locale to Hamburg and cast the unpredictable Dennis Hopper as Ripley (complete with a cowboy hat). The basic plot is the same: Ripley is slighted in public by picture framer Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), who has a terminal blood disease, one of Ripley's underworld contacts asks him to recommend someone who can carry out the murder of two mafia men muscling in on his business interests, and Ripley offers up the insolent picture framer as a sacrificial lamb. Of course, to get Jonathan in the correct frame of mind to accept the job Ripley puts around the rumor that his condition is a lot worse than he thought, thus leaving him with nothing to lose and quite a bit of money to gain for his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) and young son. Jonathan is hard-pressed to explain to his understandably suspicious wife where the money is coming from, though.

The theme of an innocent being seduced into murder is one Highsmith returned to frequently in her writing and the novel Ripley's Game illustrates it quite persuasively. Wenders doesn't have the time to capture all of the nuance of the character's descent, but Ganz conveys so much with his eyes and the way he carries himself that voice-over would have been superfluous. Wenders also gives the character of Ripley a much different demeanor than he has in the book. It's hard to tell how much of that was in his script or if it's something Hopper brought to the part, but this Ripley is a lot less sure of himself and his reasons for doing certain things are harder to pin down.

As if to make up for having to skip over Ripley Under Ground, the rights for which weren't available to him, Wenders drafts legendary director Nicholas Ray to play presumed-to-be-deceased painter Derwatt, whose works Ripley brings to auction as they're "discovered," and has Samuel Fuller play an American mobster who comes after Ripley. (In the book, it's the Italian mafia, but Wenders made them Americans.) And he indulges in some of his personal obsessions by having Ripley take Polaroids of himself (a callback to Alice in the Cities) and Jonathan spend a scene listening to The Kinks (whose songs littered the soundtrack of Wenders's feature debut, Summer in the City). A most satisfying thriller.