Friday, February 18, 2011

The American Friend

The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977) of all the "Talented Mr. Ripley's" that emerged from the poison-pen of Patricia Highsmith, there was never one so unusual as this adaptation.  Wim Wenders had been looking for a Highsmith property to adapt, and came up trumps—all the writings of the author of "Strangers on a Train" had been secured for adaptation.  And when the elderly Highsmith met with Wenders, she was suitably impressed to present him with a prize she'd been saving, the galley of the unpublished "Ripley's Game," her third novel in the exploits of Tom Ripley, American A-type (amoral, asexual) sociopath, who's managed through murder, masquerade and machiavellian tactics to make himself a very rich, cultured man in the selling of forged paintings.

There've been many Ripleys: you could say that Robert Walker's Bruno Antony in Hitchcock's adaptation of Strangers... was a good blueprint, but then Alain Delon had played the character in René Clément's Purple Noon, Barry Pepper in Ripley Underground, the almost-respectable adaptation of the first book starred Matt Damon, and John Malkovich portrayed him in the remake of Ripley's Game.  She initially didn't like Dennis Hopper's portrayal of "a cowboy in Hamburg," but she came around.

This was Hopper's first movie after the strung-out (in all meanings of the term) work he'd done as the fried photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, and the contrast couldn't be more striking.  Hopper's Ripley is quiet, almost shy, highly observational—check out the once over he gives Bruno Ganz in the gallery—and highly self-reflexive.

His Ripley seems to believe that a movie is being made about him, and he's constantly recording himself, and taking self-polaroids.  But, in action, his Ripley is fast, savage, uncompromising, and truly scary.

He's matched, step by clumsy step, by Bruno Ganz as the hapless picture framer, Jonathan Zimmermann, who becomes entangled in Ripley's scheme to provide for his family as he's dying. 

Wenders has fun with the film, casting many directors in prominent roles, most notable to American audiences, two experts of the crime film, Nicholas Ray (he portrays Ripley's one-eyed genius of a forger) and Sam Fuller, who plays the snakish gangster at the center of the plot. 


Also of note is the incredible work of director of photography Robby Müller, who manages to make every location suffuse with an unnatural glow of evil.

Ultimately, though, it is a love story.  Whatever Ripley's motivations, his squiring of Zimmermann through a series of plots, murders and misadventures, secures the man a fortunate death.  In the Malkovich Ripley's Game, the character celebrates his accomplishments by luxuriating in a sumptuous concert performance, but The American Friend is much more heart-breaking.  Ripley observes the final act of Zimmermann on a beach, embracing a pier support, a sad, satisfied smile on his face, alone with his triumph.  Simple, poignant, and a glimpse into a monster's heart, it is the one I prefer.

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