In light of his artsy, unaffected, at times entirely
improvised trilogy of “road movies”—Alice
in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move
(1975), and Kings of the Road
(1976)—Wim Wenders considered The
American Friend (1977) to be his riskiest film to date. Fortunately, the
gamble paid off and this picture, more than any of his prior efforts, placed
him prominently on the world stage, garnering him international attention and critical
acclaim. While Patricia Highsmith’s source novel, Ripley’s Game, was not his first choice of her work to bring to the
big screen (it was, in fact, not yet published), the end result is a satisfying
thriller enveloped in a morally ambiguous milieu of existential drama.
Stricken with a blood disease, workaday picture framer
Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) encounters disreputable forged art dealer Tom
Ripley (Dennis Hopper) at an auction, where the former is wise to the fakery
being peddled by the latter. When Ripley extends a hand to Zimmermann, who
ignores the gesture and rebukes the criminal with a dismissive, “I've heard of
you,” the snub rubs Ripley the wrong way. Based on this seemingly innocuous
slight, he and shady collaborator Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain) scheme to get
Zimmermann involved in a murderous plot. Playing off the threat that his
ailment has grown increasingly terminal (thanks to some fraudulent documents),
Ripley and Minot arrange for Zimmermann to take out a fellow gangster target. He
would be an unassuming figure for a murder anyway, with no connection to
Ripley, Minot, or the victim, and for his efforts, he would financially secure
his wife and young son in the wake of his death.
The initial catalyst of the forged painting, as well as the
ensuing personal deceitfulness, are indicative of the film’s primary theme, that
of the complex nature of mistaken and/or assumed identity. Early in The American Friend, when Ripley
ruminates, “I know less and less about who I am or who anybody else is,” it is
an explicit expression of this thematic thread. As the film plays out, he and
Zimmermann both embark on a profound journey building upon fluctuating ideals
and actions, sometime out of necessity—to adapt and stay alive—and sometimes just
for the pretense.
In any case, having done the deed, the oblivious yet
earnestly considerate Zimmermann (considerate for his family, that is, if not
the man he murders) evolves from an innocent amateur to an ethically problematic
criminal in his own right. The full weight of the abrupt shift to unscrupulous
behavior is made all the more disconcerting after he realizes no immediate consequences
for the assassination. First he is surprised and obviously pleased by the lack
of judicial punishment, then his joy borders on disturbing exultation. The man
who is at one point described as “quiet and peaceful” has now become a cold
blooded killer for hire. Just as with Highsmith’s most famous Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, appearances here
can be deceiving and easily deceived. As the proliferation of illicit activity
runs far and wide in The American Friend,
the film frequently questions character authenticity and the uncertain true
intentions of those involved. To therefore say the ensuing bond between
Zimmermann and Ripley is an unlikely and unsteady one would be quite the
understatement, and however much the two grow comfortable with one another,
even trusting of each other, nothing about the collaboration ever settles
enough to be solidified as a mutual partnership. Even if the characters let
their guard down momentarily, the viewer is continually primed to expect a
Zimmermann’s potentially fatal flaw, then, is that he
fails to realize that in this world of treachery and viciousness, where others
are playing the same ruthless game he is, one has to assume they too are
capable of violence. In a 2002 commentary track with Hopper, as well as in a
more recent interview, both of which are included on the new Criterion
Collection release of The American Friend,
Wenders states his reluctance toward taking on an amoral character like Ripley.
But what becomes clear is that Zimmermann is the one with whom the audience is
more disappointed. Ripley and his cohorts are what they are and we expect
nothing less; Zimmermann, on the other hand, should have been above such
misdeeds. His desire to provide for his family is laudable enough, and the
prospect of quick cash would be tantalizing, but his decision to ultimately go
through with the murder makes him a most problematic protagonist.
Further pressured by Minot, Zimmermann takes a second homicidal assignment—another rival gangster, using a garrote, aboard a train—but this time, the anxiety of the situation is palpable, as all eyes seem to be staring him down. In his inexperienced haste, Zimmermann gets sloppy and the mission is nearly thwarted. If the speeding train set piece of this mission is Hitchcockian in its location and implementation, so too is the idea that Zimmermann is the “wrong man”; not in the sense that he has been wrongfully accused (he really did kill someone and is about to do it again) but in that he is the unqualified wrong man for the job, and shouldn’t have been enlisted to begin with. The American Friend’s working title may have been the more obvious, though somewhat misleading, “Framed,” but one can see how, in a way, Zimmermann was indeed set up: set up to be in harm’s way, set up to take the fall, potentially set up to die. This nod to the master of suspense should come as no surprise. Wenders has never been shy about proclaiming his love for classic cinema, and this film, as much as any of his others, owes a good deal to the traditions of the Hollywood crime film. The difference here is that those same conventions are dramatically—sometime severely—undermined by more formally freewheeling European art film tendencies.
As for the two leading actors, Hopper was cast at the suggestion of Wenders’s first choice for the role, John Cassavetes, while Ganz, who was widely known for his work on the stage, was here given his first major film role not derived from a theatrical foundation. Dealing with the drug- and drink-addled Hopper, fresh off his wild and wooly stint in the Philippines for Apocalypse Now (1979), must surely have been no easy task for the soft-spoken Wenders. While not to the trying extent of follow German New Waver Werner Herzog and his often troubled times with Klaus Kinski, Wenders in the Criterion interview does reminisce, rather lovingly actually, about Hopper’s initial state when production began, a condition that resulted in his coming to blows with Ganz on the first day of shooting. Following the fisticuffs and a night of drinking, however, the men became fast friends and all proceeded rather well, so well that Wenders gives considerable credit to Hopper for his creation of the Ripley character (even if that incarnation wasn’t quite what Highsmith envisioned; she apparently disliked the presentation at first). Donning a cowboy hat as Hopper did in real life, this Ripley embodies much of the tumultuous actor’s persona: the restless, passionately independent nature of the persistent outlaw.
Shot in three different countries, hopping from New York City to Hamburg to Paris, The American Friend was Wenders’s first bilingual feature and its expansive geography no doubt paved the way for such globetrotting exercises as his sweeping Until the End of the World (1991), one of his most underrated movies. Along the way, working with frequent director of photography Robby Müller, Wenders infuses the film with a brilliant range of color, something made all the more prominent thanks to the new 4K restoration of the Criterion Blu-ray. The lighting, which was intensified by a pioneering use fluorescent illumination courtesy of Müller, is further amplified by a similarly color-coordinated integration of clothing, furniture, and ornamentation (see Ripley’s vibrantly blood-red bed sheets or his neon green pool table light). It’s a carefully composed and often striking consolidation of set design and cinematography. During certain sequences, these bold colors, the mannered noir dialogue, and the occasionally inflated musical cues all giveThe American Friend something of the flavor of Jean-Luc Godard, particularly in the playful generic patterns so prevalent in the French director’s pre-1967 work (Made in U.S.A.  comes to mind).
Additional cinematic connections appear throughout The American Friend, most manifestly in the casting of seven international film directors, all staring, curiously enough, in criminal roles. Aside from Hopper, other instantly recognizable figures, particularly to the savvy American viewer, include greats Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller. A bravura final 10 minutes or so concludes the film, and it’s a sequence of events that really kicks off with the death of Fuller’s character, in which he plummets down a staircase in an aggressive, violent end that itself smacks of Fullerian brutality. (The aging director quite enthusiastically had a camera strapped to his tumbling body so that, as Wenders recalls, he was essentially filming the shot himself.) And once Zimmermann concedes to the life of gangsterdom, the dialogue-free execution of his first task unfolds in the somewhat detached, measured style of Jean-Pierre Melville. Cinematic allusions don’t stop there, though. The film is dedicated to famed archivist Henri Langlois, whose Jan. 13 1977 death is seen covered on the front page of a newspaper, and further elements of film history, especially primitive film history, appear in the form of a zoetrope, a maltese cross, and though it may be a bit of a stretch, an illuminated locomotive lampshade that recalls the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895).
“Haunting, playful, and subtly daring,” writes Francine Prose in an essay accompanying the Criterion disc, The American Friend, “exemplifies the best of what can happen when one visionary takes as his inspiration the work of another, using it to explore and express his own obsessions.” Throughout the picture, Wenders and his cast and crew undoubtedly strive for, and generally achieve, the look and tone of a familiar thriller, be it of literary or cinematic origin (composer Jürgen Knieper also deserves named recognition for this outcome). But into that assimilation of generic tropes likewise enters an enigmatic pacing and sense of narrative and character ambiguity. It is this twofold mixture that, as Prose notes, makes The American Friend an exemplary work of artistic absorption and realization.
The Criterion Blu-ray release contains a wealth of extras including 2002 audio commentary by Wim Wnders and Dennis Hopper, new interviews with Wenders and Bruno Ganz, deleted scenes with audio commentary by Wenders, new English sub-title translation and a collectible booklet with essay by Francine Prose.