The American Friend
As humans we all too often imagine ourselves masters of our own destiny but fate will play games with us and frequently the twists that send life spinning away from any preconceived plans rest on a single act. So it is in The American Friend.
Bruno Ganz plays Jonathan Zimmerman, a mild mannered restorer and framer of paintings who lives an unassuming life in Hamburg. Attending an auction one day he senses something not quite right with a deceased artist’s newly discovered painting and when introduced to the man behind the sale he refuses to shake hands. “I’ve heard of you” he says cryptically before leaving. This both intrigues and frustrates the man scorned, not someone to displease for it turns out this is Tom Ripley. Yes, that Tom Ripley. The sociopath charmer, from Patricia Highsmith‘s novels you may have seen portrayed on screen by Alain Delon, Matt Damon or John Malkovich. Here he is played by Dennis Hopper who might seem a peculiar fit but he works wonderfully.
Ripley is obliged to kill a man for a friend in need and knowing this beyond his temperament he manipulates events so that Zimmerman is bribed, cajoled and harried into taking the job. Zimmerman, you see is suffering from a terminal blood disease and so vague is the prognosis that the Grim Reaper may have his way at any moment. Because of this he becomes an easy target for a smooth sell along the lines of “You’ll be gone soon – don’t you want to make sure your wife and son are left comfortable?”
Thus he finds himself in Paris, gun in hand and black & white glossy mugshot of future victim in his pocket. He bumbles his way through the job which pleases his contact so much he’s offered a repeat performance, this time on a high speed transport careening its way to Munich which proves to be, amongst other things a sly nod to another of Highsmith’s works, Strangers on a Train.
Part of the beauty of the film is the director Wim Wenders‘ skill in marrying the traditional American crime drama’s focus on story with the European tradition of concentrating on atmosphere. Throughout there is an almost distracting level of playfulness as plot threads are left unresolved and character motivations are unclear, though this discordance matters less than you might think. What matters is the journey that Herr Zimmerman takes as he’s tipped from friendly, low-ambition picture framer content to keep his head down in Hamburg to (and I’m stretching this slightly) international hit man caught in Ripley’s web.
As the film progresses the two central figures in the story, Ripley and Zimmerman start to develop a bond that grows into a respectful near friendship which is rather moving. Especially as Zimmerman begins to become more distant from his wife and at the same time Ripley discovers the emptiness within his soul.
The American Friend was an early work from Wim Wenders and with it he demonstrates a deep love of cinema, not least in his casting a slew of fellow directors in supporting roles. Nicholas Ray (re-teaming with Hopper for the first time since Rebel Without a Cause) plays the painter who has faked his death and continues to sell through Ripley, while the criminal gang who begin to make life difficult for protagonists are helmed by Samuel Fuller, with Jean Eustache, Peter Lilienthal, Daniel Schmid making absurd and threatening appearances.
Self indulgent it may be, fun it certainly is.
The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund) – directed by Wim Wenders (1977)
An unassuming picture restorer has his life turned upside down after a chance meeting with a skilled and charming sociopath.