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The American Friend: Little Lies and Big Disasters

American Friend essay

Haunting, playful, and subtly daring, Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977) 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.

The film is loosely based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, and (even more loosely) on another of her novels, Ripley Under Ground. Highsmith’s readers will hardly be surprised to learn that the writer failed to recognize her title character in the Tom Ripley that Dennis Hopper brings to the screen. Highsmith’s heroic villain (or villainous hero) is the perfect sociopath: cool, competent, calculating, highly skilled at evading detection as the corpses pile up in the novels in which he appears—a type one could hardly imagine the tense, impulsive, unpredictable Hopper playing. In fact, Highsmith was initially dismayed with Hopper’s portrayal, though she eventually came around to respecting and liking the film. (Right from the start, however, she admired the balletic staging of the long, chaotic sequence involving some nasty murders on a fast-moving European train.)

As Ripley’s Game opens, Tom is living in rural France with his wealthy French wife and enjoying all the comforts of bourgeois life: buying an expensive antique harpsichord, doing a bit of painting and sketching, planning gourmet meals with the cook. When Jonathan Trevanny, a British expatriate who works as a picture framer and lives nearby, casually insults Ripley at a local gathering, the semiretired con man and killer concocts an elaborate (and delightfully improbable) revenge scheme. His plans involve convincing the framer that the blood disease from which he suffers has grown drastically worse.

Believing that death is imminent, and that he is about to leave his wife and son in dire straits, Trevanny agrees to be a contract killer. In exchange for a large sum that his family will inherit, he will assassinate two mafiosi and (best case!) set off a Mafia gang war that will benefit Raoul Minot, a French friend and coconspirator of Ripley’s, with whom (in Ripley Under Ground) he carried out another scheme to forge and sell paintings allegedly done by a famous artist—now dead.

Such is the frame of the plot. Following it more or less closely, drifting away and then returning to an event from the novel, Wenders radically changes the two main characters. If Highsmith’s Ripley is a cool customer, a fraud and maniac so skilled at what he does that (by the time we catch up with him) he has managed to secure himself an enviable (if ultimately precarious) existence, Wenders and Hopper give us, in Ripley, a hopped-up elf from hell, simultaneously calculating, goofy, and demonic.

We may feel that Highsmith’s interest in Jonathan Trevanny is mostly about how the puppeteer Ripley yanks on his strings. But Wenders portrays Ripley’s victim (here renamed Jonathan Zimmermann, and changed from an Englishman to a German or Swiss German, as we find out) as a tragic figure, a hero for whom we are actively rooting in his struggle against the forces unleashed by the reprehensible caprice of his American friend. How can we not side with a character played by Bruno Ganz at his most radiantly handsome, an actor who can manage to perform the deceptively simple but in fact challenging feat of making a mild and fundamentally decent family man both interesting and charismatic?

* * *

We meet Ripley on a cobblestone street in New York’s SoHo, transplanted from Highsmith’s wholly European milieu. As he emerges from a taxi, a siren wails in the background. One trembles to imagine what Highsmith felt when she saw the Stetson hat that the manic cowboy Ripley is wearing, haberdashery that her suave, dapper character would have despised. Played by the iconic director Nicholas Ray (Sam Fuller also appears in the film, as a cigar-smoking American gangster driving an ambulance getaway vehicle), an artist (and forger) named Pogash also has some reservations about the fashion statement made by Ripley’s hat. Up in the old-school SoHo painter’s loft (the sort of space now mostly renovated and inhabited by hedge-fund families), Pogash asks Ripley if he wears that hat when he’s back in Hamburg. Hopper takes off his hat and examines it as if he’s never seen it before. He asks, “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Nothing and everything, as it turns out.

Throughout his career, Wim Wenders has been fascinated, even obsessed, by America: its landscapes, its citizens’ faces, the way the country sees itself and is seen by the world, its reality and its myth. Ripley’s Stetson identifies him as mythically American, so it’s ironic and odd and funny that America—in theory, a beacon of democracy and culture—appears here as a rather dim beacon: a not very intelligent psycho, with a calculating nature and a gift for intimidation that may remind us of the crazed, gas-sucking bully Hopper would play in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

The camera follows Ripley back to his mansion in Hamburg, a limestone extravaganza seemingly built for some decadent or possibly mad Habsburg prince. In fact, Ripley’s a bit excessive himself; in one peculiar and striking scene, we look down on him in bed, dressed in a khaki jumpsuit and lying on sheets the garish tangerine color of drugstore lipstick.

Elsewhere in Hamburg, we meet Jonathan Zimmermann, walking with his small son Daniel. In Wings of Desire, which Wenders made a decade later, Ganz plays an angel, and a halo already surrounds the sweet-natured picture framer. He’s so good he can’t bring himself to chase down an old woman who underpays him, so polite he gives Ripley a trick photo (move it and the face wiggles) to apologize for having been rude after an art auction during which one of Ripley’s fakes sold for a very high price. That the painting is slated for resale in Texas, where it will fetch a small fortune, is ironically meant to ameliorate the crime.

Ganz’s Zimmermann is so solid, so vital and shyly forceful, anyone could tell him that he isn’t as sick as Ripley is trying to make him think. In fact, the doctors do tell him that, but Ripley and his evil friends are more persuasive. We can only hope for the best as we watch the framer make one wrong decision after another—his actions based, of course, on critical wrong information. Ganz makes us feel that he is behaving exactly as we would in his situation—wanting to know everything, hoping for good news and fearing the worst. Spouting hackneyed philosophical blather (“There is nothing to fear but fear itself”) into a tape recorder, looking, in his cowboy hat, like a demented James Dean, doing a funny little dance on his majestic terrace, sprawled on his tangerine sheets, Ripley is pure trouble—a bomb exploding in Zimmermann’s life.

The film contains plenty of action and suspense, of mayhem and murder, but it goes deeper than crime, than noir; we feel that we are watching a sort of primal duel. It’s a little like Henry James in reverse: the jaded American corrupting the innocent European. And though we sympathize with Zimmermann, we also become almost complicit in that corruption, as fascinated as Ripley is by how the framer overcomes his conscience and agrees to do things that would have been unthinkable before.

When Raoul Minot explains that they need one or maybe two people eliminated, Ripley objects for as long as it takes Minot to remind him of their shared criminal past—about ten seconds. Zimmermann holds out for much longer. There is a beautiful scene in which he thinks that Minot is mistaking him for someone else, or joking. His reluctant transformation is at once Shakespearean, noir, and soap-operatic; the nakedness of his pain brings to mind a Teutonic Almodóvar character.

When Zimmermann receives his first assignment to commit murder, he is told that his intended victim is an American Jew. In fact, the guy he is supposed to kill looks less American than French, with a long, sad Semitic face—a hit man who resembles Marcel Proust. I can’t remember whether, the first time I saw the film—shortly after it was released—I registered the intense, nervy, slightly wicked achievement of making someone like me (an American Jew) hope that a German would kill the American Jew and get away with it. Again, it’s the power of Wenders’s direction and Ganz’s performance that so thoroughly reorganizes our moral and historical sympathies. How squarely we have been put on Zimmermann’s side, fearing for his safety as, after the semibotched assassination, he keeps tripping over things and smashing into the walls of the metro station.

If all this is not reason enough to watch The American Friend, there are plenty of others. The settings are fantastic, not only Ripley’s mansion but the Hamburg waterfront neighborhood where Zimmermann lives with his family. (Wenders has always had an unerring eye for the expressiveness of architecture and landscape.) The scenes of violence and mounting paranoia are as skillfully shot as anything in Hitchcock. We feel the film is at once rigorous and free to interject an unexpected shot: there is a striking, almost startling cartoon of a vintage moving train that not only prefigures the railroad horrors to come but appears on little Daniel Zimmermann’s bedside lampshade. Later Daniel and a friend play with a zoetrope, that early animation device featuring a drum lined with slits, through which one looks at images on the inside as the drum turns and animates them: here, a cartoon of a figure jumping through a hoop held by another figure. There is a visually magnificent scene in which Zimmermann is playing with a sheet of gold and winds up gold-leafing his hand. And then we have the excellent soundtrack, a characteristic of Wenders’s, who has also made some of the very best documentaries about music and dance, Buena Vista Social Club (1999) and the brilliant Pina (2011), a study of the Pina Bausch dance company. Here the music ranges from a lush, Bernard Herrmann–like score to something like the ethereal chimes we can play on our iPhones.

Images and scenes stay with us, layering over our memories of the Highsmith novel, forming a unique pentimento. In a letter to Andrew Wilson, author of Beautiful Shadow, a biography of Highsmith, Wenders wrote, “Her novels are really all about truth, in a more existential way than just ‘right or wrong.’ They are about little lies that lead to big disasters. As I am really obsessed with the idea of ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ being identical notions, you can imagine I was attracted by Highsmith’s own preoccupations.” Like Highsmith, Wenders has always been preoccupied with nationality, with the differences between Americans and Europeans, and with the effects of place. But above all, truth and beauty are what he has gone for and achieved in this stylish thriller, really and truly noir in its power to make us feel that we are watching something epic and spiritual play out in a very dark way, on a fast European train.

Copyright © 2016 by Francine Prose. All rights reserved.

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