Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 7, 2017
To view The American Friend click here.
Tom Ripley only ever wore a cowboy hat once. In Hamburg. And Wim Wenders loved it. Playing Tom Ripley, Dennis Hopper dons the hat as he roams about, confused and paranoid, running an art forgery scheme to make money off of ignorant investors. At one of those art auctions he’s introduced to a framer, Jonathan Zimmerman, played by Bruno Ganz, and gets the cold shoulder. Anyone who knows Tom Ripley knows that’s a mistake. Ripley is many things, from con man to sociopath, but he is, above all else, unstable. Tom Ripley never forgets a slight. That initiates a series of events that sets in motion Wenders’ 1977 thriller, The American Friend, based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game.
Tom Ripley is a character well known at this point, thanks to the success of the novels and the multiple screen adaptations. What’s interesting, is that the Tom Ripley of the books is always the same character, written by the same author, while the Tom Ripley of the screen depends entirely on who is playing him. He’s been played most notably by Alain Delon, Matt Damon and John Malkovich, but Dennis Hopper gives Ripley his most unique interpretation, though not the best of the lot. Delon, Damon and Malkovich all work better than Hopper as the Ripley of the novels and it’s possible Hopper knew going in that he didn’t have the suave aloofness to play Ripley as written so instead, he made Ripley into a version of Hopper, an unstable and confused man, a frustrated artist looking for a score but hoping to find something fulfilling along the way. He evens walks onto his balcony, early in the film, singing “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” the Byrds song from the very movie Hopper had starred in and directed just eight years earlier, Easy Rider (1969).
Once Ripley meets Zimmerman, the story turns to him, the framer, and we see him at home with his wife and son, happy but guarded against happiness as he has a rare blood disease that, if it worsens, would end his life before his son has a chance to know him. One day, he receives a telegram from a friend, saying he is sorry to hear that Zimmerman’s illness has grown worse. Zimmerman rushes to his doctor who assures him his condition is unchanged and his friend is crazy. Then a shady individual named Minot (Gérard Blain) approaches Zimmerman relaying the same information and makes him an offer: If Zimmerman shoots a man that Blain wants dead, he will receive 250 thousand marks and his wife and child will be taken care of when he dies in a few months. Zimmerman tells him he’s not a killer and rushes to his doctor once again. His doctor tells him to stop worrying but Zimmerman cannot. When Minot shows up again, he sets up an appointment for Zimmerman with another doctor, fixes the results to look awful and finally convinces him to carry out the assassination.
The movie then becomes about Zimmerman’s choice and Ripley’s game. Will Zimmerman actually become an assassin just because he thinks he’s dying? And is Ripley the one setting him up? If so, why? Could it be nothing more than a slight at an auction? Is that enough? If all that sounds a little odd to you, you’re not alone. Many critics at the time found the plot complicated and ridiculous and Tom Ripley walking around Hamburg in a cowboy hat didn’t help.
The American Friend was made by Wim Wenders out of a deep love for the source material and he even contacted Patricia Highsmith in 1973 to personally ask her if he could have the rights, already purchased by other parties, to make movies out of her second and third Ripley books. Instead, she offered him the rights to Ripley’s Game, which at that point hadn’t been published (it would be in 1974). He accepted but didn’t like the title (don’t ask me why, I personally think Ripley’s Game is the best title of any of the Ripley novels) and wanted it changed. It was Dennis Hopper who suggested The American Friend and it stuck.
Hopper himself wasn’t Wenders’ first choice but when John Cassavetes turned it down, he suggested Hopper. Once Hopper agreed, he suggested Nicolas Ray to Wenders for the role of the painter, and Wenders agreed. Ray had been Hopper’s first director, directing Rebel Without a Cause, the movie in which Hopper got his start. Wenders then cast other directors in roles, including Samuel Fuller as an American gangster because, of course.
When Wenders finished, he was excited for Highsmith to see it but she didn’t like it, at least, she didn’t at first. Upon further viewing, it grew on her, or maybe it didn’t but she felt bad telling Wenders again that she felt it didn’t work so she lied. While I think it’s a wonderful movie and a great thriller, I can also understand Highsmith thinking Dennis Hopper was all wrong for the part. And it’s true, as I wrote above, Hopper just doesn’t feel like Ripley, not if you’ve read the novels. Of course, a movie should stand on its own whether you’ve read the novels or not, and I think this one does, but even so, Hopper’s Ripley doesn’t necessarily seem like a good enough con man to fool too many people. Or, rather, he doesn’t seem charming enough to pull people into his orbit. Maybe that’s why Wenders spends most of the movie focused on Ganz. Either way, The American Friend is a great movie in Wenders’ catalog and a very good thriller as well. If nothing else, it’s the strangest Ripley adaptation you’ll ever see.
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