70s Rewind: Wim Wenders' THE AMERICAN FRIEND
Fatal diseases and independent films go hand in hand. Mike Mills' Beginners, which opened in limited release in the US today, stars Ewan McGregor as a man who discovers that his father has a terminal disease, prompting a flood of memories to flow. Wim Wenders' The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund), released in 1977, features Dennis Hopper as a man who discovers that a friend of a friend has a fatal illness, setting the wheels of a devious plan in motion.
Hopper is embodying his version of Tom Ripley, a legendary character created by novelist Patricia Highsmith, a slippery sort who'd previously appeared as the glamorous and sexy Alain Delon in René Clément's Purple Noon. Subsequently, the nefarious Ripley has shown up in The Talented Mr. Ripley (Matt Damon), Ripley's Game (John Malkovich), and Ripley Under Ground (Barry Pepper), so today's astute viewer knows Ripley is up to no good from the moment he steps out of a taxi cab, cowboy hat perched on his head, with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in the background.
It's December 1976, and art dealer Ripley is paying a visit to a dead client. Derwatt (played by legendary director Nicholas Ray) is not quite six feet under; he's pretending to be dead in order to drive up the price of his paintings, and we can assume it was Ripley who first planted the idea in his head. Ripley, going under the name Allan Hunter, travels to Hamburg, Germany, to sell the painting via a friendly gallery owner. There Ripley meets Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), a framer.
Ripley extends his hand in greeting, but Jonathan declines to shake it. He's heard of Ripley, suspects the Derwatt painting is a fake, and wants nothing to do with him. The gallery owner makes excuses, telling Ripley in confidence that Jonathan is not himself lately because he's learned he has a fatal blood disease.
Ripley is intrigued.
Soon thereafter, Ripley visits Jonathan in his seaside framing shop. A bit later, a stranger named Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain) comes calling, with a proposition that involves a trip to Paris, a large sum of money, and a gun. Before long, Jonathan is lying to his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) and finding himself ever more closely entwined with Ripley.
Though this is the stuff that thrillers are made of, The American Friend unfolds at the pace of a domestic drama, which reflects both the time period in which it was made and, especially, the narrative rhythm set by Wim Wenders. He had made a promising debut with The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick in 1972 and then accepted an offer to adapt Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic The Scarlet Letter, a decision he later described as a terrible mistake; the film was a critical and box office failure.
In despair, he wrote a script, but then saw an American hit that seemed to cover the same ground. He was on the verge of giving up filmmaking entirely when he met Sam Fuller, who convinced him that he had to make his own movie, to be true to his own vision. The script became Alice in the Cities, which Wenders considers his first "real" movie, and kicked off his so-called "Road Trilogy," encompassing The Wrong Movement and Kings of the Road.
The American Friend became his biggest hit and led to another offer: the opportunity to direct Hammett for producer Francis Coppola's American Zoetrope. It was intended to be the first release from the fledgling studio, but disagreements about the script and Coppola's increasing involvement delayed the film for years. In the meantime, Wenders made Lightning Over Water, a fascinating documentary / drama, with Nicholas Ray, which was the first film by Wenders that I saw.
At the time, I was living in Los Angeles, and Wenders' earlier films were screening on a regular basis at one or more of the city's repertory theaters. The "New German Cinema" was a handy label that introduced me to Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, among others.
Lightning Over Water whet my appetite for Wenders, but the confusing mess of Hammett (unfairly) dampened it, and it wasn't until Wings of Desire, his masterpiece, that Wenders completely captivated me. His films since then have been hit and miss, but, based on my recent first viewing of The American Friend on DVD, I've realized how much I've been missing by not combing my way back through his 70s filmography.
The Region 0 DVD from Anchor Bay, released in 2003, features a fine transfer, the original theatrical trailer, above average "talent bios" by Mark Wickum, deleted scenes (totaling 36 minutes), and an audio commentary by Wenders and Hopper, from which I've drawn some of the information in this article. Hopper disappears from time to time -- was he stepping out for a smoke? -- but Wenders keeps up a steady stream of interesting anecdotes about the production, locations, actors, and Hopper.
Wenders takes care to point out all the directors who appear as villains; he explains that he doesn't feel he understands how to effectively portray bad guys on screen, so once he'd secured Hopper to play Ripley, it only made sense to cast directors to help him flesh out the evil characters. Thus, the appearances of Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Gérard Blain, Peter Lilienthal, Daniel Schmid, and Jean Eustache in the cast.
The American Friend is spare and minimal. Bruno Ganz is painfully, quietly eloquent as Jonathan, a good man drawn into evil out of a love for his wife and young son. Dennis Hopper, having recently completed his adventure with Coppola in Apocalypse Now, gives one of his trademark performances as Tom Ripley (quite an achievement in view of his admitted indulgences at the time). Robby Müller does amazing things with the muted yet somehow vibrantly colorful photography. Jürgen Knieper's musical score is vaguely reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann while establishing its own haunting refrains.
This is a movie that doesn't knock you over the head with its brilliance. It plays against type, eroding the trappings of the mystery movie genre until all that's left is the emotional residue of one person destroyed by another.