The American Friend
1977 // Germany // Wim Wenders
Criterion Release Date: January 12, 2016 (LINK)
In 2015, two new films by Wim Wenders were screened separately in Hong Kong. One is the tremendously beautiful and absorbing biographical documentary The Salt of the Earth (2014); the other one, Every Thing Will Be Fine (2015), the first full-length dramatic feature from Wenders in seven years, is so badly received that I deliberately avoid, for the fear of disappointment. In my recent memory, the films from Wenders that received recognition are mainly documentaries, in contrary, the quality of his dramatic outputs are seemingly in decline.
That’s why it’s refreshing to look back some of the Wim Wenders’ earlier catalogue, to remember the magic that was once mesmerising and alluring. The American Friend was made immediately after the Road Movie Trilogy (Alice in the Cities (1974), The Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976), all “rumoured” to be coming to Criterion), a movie that is easily recognisable as a Wenders film. A dislocated protagonist amidst the pictorial landscapes of cities, a constant conflict between narrative and imagery that, in the hands of Wenders, is encompassed in harmony.
The American Friend is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “Ripley’s Game”, featuring the same con artist Tom Ripley that is starred by Alain Delon in Purple Noon (1960) and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). I’m unfamiliar to the novels of Ripley series, as well as the other film adaptations. But from what I read, Wim Wenders and Dennis Hopper, who starred as the villainous protagonist in The American Friend, largely modified and personalised the character in their own interpretation.
Dennis Hopper’s Ripley is an insecure, capricious and precarious art dealer who involves with the fraudulent trades in the criminal underworld. He wears a cowboy hat, records his own soliloquies in a tape record, talks selfie with the Polaroid camera. He is the equivalent of dislocation as expressed by Harry Dean Stanton’s wandering Travis in Paris, Texas (1984) or Bruno Ganz’s immortal angel in Wings of Desire (1987). The existential crisis, as well as Hopper’s intrinsic acting, intensifies an otherwise unexciting prototype of character.
But what intrigued me the most, presumably the other audience as well, is the victim-turned-complicit German frame artist Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz). He is persuaded by the French gangster Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain) that his blood disease has been worsening to an imminent death, hence a large sum of money is offered in exchange of assassination of two enemies. The film is basically a downward spiral of Zimmermann into uncertainties of his health issue, of his ability in murder, of his trusting relationship with his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer). At the same time, a budding relationship is developed between Zimmermann and Ripley, who is actually the mastermind of the fraud.
One may find the film implausible if clutching on absolute logic, yet the imageries of the main cities (Hamburg, Paris and New York) by Robby Müller’s captivating cinematography create a stylistic distraction which is accountable to the neo-noirishness. Wenders’ profound passion on American culture, in the form of songs, actors and city landmark, is intermingled with the displacement of characters geographically (Ripley travels to New York to meet the art-forger, played by the legendary American director Nicholas Ray; Zimmermann travels to Paris for the assassination) and psychologically (Ripley’s loathing towards Zimmermann changes into a compassionate bond).
Even though the last half hour is a bit far-stretched and messy, The American Friend provides us two exceedingly intense assassination sequences, both related to train or train station (again, vehicle of displacement). The clumsiness of Zimmermann and the spontaneity of Ripley are both comical and fierce in heightening the tension. The camera does not serve the solely purpose of “telling a story”, it suffuses the narrative with an atmosphere which draws us deeper and closer to the characters.
It is also nice to see other directors play a part in the The American Friend, besides Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller and Jean Eustache also appeared in a small role. The American Friend is one of the stronger film amidst Wenders’ oeuvre, though not the best work of him, it surely anticipates the future release of Road Movie Trilogy from Criterion. And I hope the wait is not long.