Over the past few decades, Tom Ripley – the complicated, occasionally murderous central figure of a series of novels by Patricia Highsmith - has become one of cinema's most elusive characters. That's partially because Ripley is written as an amoral con man who can be benevolent or monstrous depending on the situation he's in (or even depending on what sort of mood he's in). However, it's also because none of the filmmakers or actors who have brought Ripley to the big screen seem to be in much agreement about who the character is or how he should be played: Alain Delon essayed him as a soulless charmer in Purple Noon, Matt Damon brought the character's inner turmoil to the surface in The Talented Mr. Ripley and John Malkovich played him as an almost Hannibal Lecter-esque cultured psychopath in Ripley's Game.
So, how do director Wim Wenders and actor Dennis Hopper opt to present the character in The American Friend? I like to imagine their conversation went something like this:
Wenders: “So, before we get into this, let's talk about Tom Ripley. He's sophisticated, mysterious, crafty, quietly dangerous...”
Hopper: “Like the Marlboro Man.”
Wenders: “Yes, like the... I'm sorry, come again?”
Hopper: “He sounds like the Marlboro Man. He has a cowboy hat and smoke cigarettes.”
Wenders: “Huh. Interesting. So aside from the props, how do you want to play him?”
Hopper: “Y'know, I'll just do my thing, man.”
Okay, I'm sure that's not quite how it went down, but perhaps it gives you an idea of where they eventually wound up. Hopper doesn't really seem to have any idea of what to do with Highsmith's complicated character, so he just kinda grins, puffs his cigarettes and delivers his lines with a vague air of menace. Still, maybe the character's curious emptiness is the point, particularly given the film's title (the plot is pulled from both Ripley's Game and Ripley Under Ground): with his Stetson, considerable wealth and unearned swagger, the character seems less a statement on Highsmith and more a statement on a distinctly American brand of selfish arrogance.
Consider, for instance, the way the story kicks off. Ripley is living in Germany, where he plays a key role in a complicated art forgery scheme: he commissions expert forgeries of valuable pieces of art, takes those pieces to an auction and then makes carefully-timed bids in the auction in order to drive up the price. At one of these auctions, Ripley is introduced to Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz, Wings of Desire), a humble portrait framer. Ripley reaches out to shake Zimmermann's hand, but Zimmerman declines. “I've heard of you,” Zimmermann says dismissively, before walking away.
Angry at this minor (and deserved!) slight and eager to get revenge, Ripley concocts an elaborate scheme to A) convince Zimmermann that he only has a short time left to live (Zimmermann has a very real blood disease that makes this lie a good deal easier to sell) and B) convince Zimmermann to accept a challenging, dangerous assassination contract that Ripley was initially supposed to handle.
While the (superb) Ripley's Game depicted the relationship between these two characters as an incredibly lopsided one - a fiendishly intelligent monster toying with his prey for the sake of his own amusement – The American Friend largely presents Ripley's scheme as a childish, foolish act of bitter impulsiveness. Eventually, Ripley begins to realize that maybe he's gone a little too far, and steps in to help clean up the mess he's made.
Though Ripley's Game offers a considerably richer portrait of Ripley, The American Friend excels in its portrait of Zimmermann. While the character initially seems like a mere pawn of the plot, Ganz slowly transforms him into the film's most soulful, complicated figure; a decent man trying to find a little breathing room as his marriage starts to crumble, mortality looms large and enormous moral challenges arise. Ganz makes a great noir protagonist; a probably-doomed sadsack who knows he's in way over his head even if he doesn't quite know why.
The plot details get a little murky on occasion, but Wenders' direction is stylish and confident, particularly during the lengthy, suspenseful scenes that unfold on a moving train (cue memories of Strangers on a Train, Alfred Hitchcock's tremendous Highsmith adaptation). It's no surprise to see Ganz covered in sweat in these sequences, but it's striking to see Ripley looking just as frantic and disheveled: so much for the cool, collected genius routine. While the film was largely intended as an homage to old noir flicks of the '40s and '50s, the surface-level visual style is strikingly different: shades of grey are captured in the film's moral framework, while the actual images are filled with bright, sometimes lurid colors (just look at that early scene of Ripley sprawled out on silky red sheets).
Likewise, Wenders attempts to capture the spirit of the Highsmith books rather than adapting the specifics. When Highsmith first saw the film, she immediately disliked it, particularly Hopper's performance as Ripley. Later, she came around on it, praising the film's stylishness and declaring that, “the scenes on the train are terrific.” That's about right. This isn't the best Wenders film, the best Highsmith film or even the best Ripley film, but it's still an interesting, unique work that merits some attention.
The American Friend
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Year: 1977