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The American Friend

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jan 26, 2016
The American Friend

Stories about friendships gone wrong abound: People sell each other out; affections are replaced by resentment, overshadowed by ambition, or lost in the fog of romantic warfare. But what about a friendship that starts in an unlikely place - say, when one man sets another man up to do the dirty work of contract killing but then grows fond of the dupe and starts to act protectively toward him?

Such is the way things play out in Wim Wenders' 1977 thriller "The American Friend," which is based on Patricia Highsmith's novel "Ripley's Game" (with elements from another of Highsmith's Ripley novels, "Ripley underground," also thrown in). Dennis Hopper plays Tom Ripley (and he does so in the usual hopped-up Hopper way), and Bruno Ganz plays Jonthan Zimmerman, the Swiss art expert Ripley targets, then befriends. On the surface, Ripley's actions seem to stem from an incident in which Zimmerman gives Ripley the cold shoulder, but underneath that is another thread: Zimmerman has such a refined eye for art that he alone spots the subtle variation in hue that marks as fake the painting Ripley is hawking at an art auction.

Both Ripley's animosity toward, and his admiration for, Zimmerman can be traced to this - Ripley realizes that Zimmerman's expertise is a potential threat, but he also can't help a genuine appreciation for the man's talent (if that word can be used here without making a pun of it). In a passing moment that speaks to Wenders' own mixture of admiration and abhorrence for American culture, an art dealer willing to part with a small fortune to acquire the forged painting shrugs off Zimmerman's warning, saying that American art buyers will never know the difference - "They'll snap it up in Texas," he asserts, with airy dismissal.

The scheme could have come from a Hitchcock movie, and is as follows: Ripley owes a favor to a Parisian mob boss (Gérard Blain), and that mob boss has murder on his mind. Rather than do the deed himself, Ripley exploits the fact that Zimmerman has a blood disorder and, using rumor and faked medical reports, he preys on Zimmerman's fears of impending death. When sufficiently convinced that his doctor is sugarcoating his diagnosis, Zimmerman is ready to accept a pile of cash for carrying out the hit - it's something he can leave for his family. But then the Parisian heavy wants the newly-minted assassin to rub out more people for him, and Ripley - having had his fun, and now worried for Zimmerman - decides to intervene.

It's a compelling mix of compassion and sociopathy, and while Hopper may lack the finesse of Alain Delon - who played the Ripley character in the 1960 René Clément film "Purple Noon" (or the native sympathy of Matt Damon's take on the character in Anthony Minghella's 1999 screen adaptation of the same material, "The Talented Mr. Ripley") - he does conjure a jittery, bug-nuts sort of enthusiasm shot through with angst, despair, and self-loathing. Ganz, meanwhile, creates a character who's both liberated and tormented by the act of killing; facing death himself, he revels in the power to take life even as he's distraught over having done so.

The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of "The American Friend" looks as good as you'd hope. The transfer is done in 4K resolution, with restoration and color correction supervised by the director. Wenders also provides a new interview for this release, as does Ganz. Hopper appears with Wenders on a previously-released audio commentary track from 2002. Wenders also provides commentary for the deleted scenes that are included here.

The movie takes place in New York, Hamburg, and Paris, and several languages come into play (another Wenders trademark, used to good effect in "Until the End of the World" and "Wings of Desire"). The film uses subtitles, which have been newly retranslated for this release.

An illuminating essay by novelist Francine Prose rounds out the special features here; Prose zeroes in on Wenders' fascination with Americana, symbolized in this film by Ripley's affectation of a cowboy hat. Prose also points out a playful little casting choice Wenders goes for here, giving all the mobster roles to fellow film directors - an artistic choice that signals more than a little complicity between the artist and the shadowy, violent impulses that color and help propel capital-A Art.


"The American Friend"
Blu-ray
$27.99
https://www.criterion.com/films/28763-the-american-friend

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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