Director: Wim Wenders
Screenplay: Wim Wenders
Based on the Novel by: Patricia Highsmith
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kreuzer, Gérard Blain, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller
Country: West Germany, France
Running Time: 126 min
Year: 1977
BBFC Certificate: 12

The American Friend saw German director Wim Wenders turn his hand to an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, Ripley’s Game. A great fan of the writer’s work, he initially tried to secure the rights to Cry of the Owl and The Tremor of Forgery, but each had already been optioned. In 1974, he got lucky though and managed to secure the rights to Ripley’s Game around the time of its release. He didn’t begin production straight away, but after working very loosely with not much of what you’d call a script or story on Kings of the Road, he felt the need to work on something with a solid structure already put in place by someone else. Of course, Wenders went on to tweak and change a fair amount of Highsmith’s story, but in essence created what the novelist said came ‘closer to the spirit of the book than any previous adaptations’ (though she wasn’t initially convinced by the film and never bought Dennis Hopper as Ripley). It’s often considered one of Wenders’ best films and AX1 are releasing it on Blu-Ray and DVD from a beautifully restored print soon after they did the same with Kings of the Road.

The American Friend sees Dennis Hopper play Tom Ripley, a criminal who’s making money selling art by a friend in hiding who is believed to be dead (played by Nicholas Ray), thus increasing the value of his work. Ripley is approached by Minot (Gérard Blain), a criminal associate who wants someone murdered by an anonymous killer. Ripley decides to get Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), a picture framer who he ran into at an auction, to do the job. Jonathan is no killer, but Ripley and Minot create rumours and falsify doctor’s reports to suggest that Jonathan’s blood disease is nearing a fatal stage, making him believe this job is his last chance to earn some decent money to support his wife (Lisa Kreuzer) and young son after he’s gone. Jonathan accepts the job, but, soon after, Ripley has pangs of guilt over what he’s done and steps in to help his new friend.

The story itself, focussing on the life of an ill picture framer, isn’t your typical thriller material, but Wenders goes even further to create a kind of anti-thriller or anti-film-noir, much in the vein of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie or The Long Goodbye, both made earlier in the decade. Instead of crafting a sexy criminal underworld full of rich gangsters, we get a distinctly unglamorous portrayal, with Ripley’s existence in particular coming across as lonely and empty. The violence and on-screen murders are messy and ugly too, rather than stylish and glamorised.

Such sequences are still effectively tense and exciting though, particularly the lengthy, near-dialogue-free first killing scene and an enjoyably messy second one on a train (although there’s a dodgy back-projected effects shot at one point). The violence escalates in the final act too, when the proverbial hits the fan, ending on a near-nihilistic note.

The film is gorgeously shot by long-time Wenders cohort Robby Müller. He made revolutionary use of neon strip lighting here, inventing a technique which is now commonplace on film shoots. Unfortunately he didn’t patent it, so didn’t reap the rewards for creating what became Kino-Flo lighting. Müller and Wenders create a film that has a grubby, realistic look, but is often beautifully framed and lit in a low key fashion with bold uses of colour here and there. Locations are brilliantly utilised too, capitalising on their strong angles and space or lack of it.

There’s a great use of music, as is to be expected from Wenders. There’s an edgy and ominous noir-tinged score with hints of guitar to set it apart from the rest. Characters often quietly sing and quote lines from English/American rock/pop songs too, bringing in Wenders’ famous love for such music.

The lead performances are great, particularly Ganz who would go on to be best known for his oft-spoofed turn as Adolf Hitler in the superb Downfall. Here he crafts a complex and deeply troubled character with subtle intensity.

Elsewhere in the cast list there are a handful of film directors (all friends/colleagues of Wenders) filling the roles of the on-screen criminals. Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray are the most obvious examples (along with Hopper, who’s better known as an actor these days). I’m not quite sure what the intention behind this was, but with lots of references to copies within the film too, perhaps Wenders is making a statement on directors making inferior representations of someone else’s work. He himself, of course, is adapting the work of a popular novelist and changing it to fit his style and format.

All in all then, The American Friend is an unusual but steadily gripping anti-thriller that’s expertly handled, with a fine lead performance. It turns thriller and noir conventions on their head, but retains enough of them to work as entertainment, whilst functioning equally as well as an arthouse character study. Highly recommended.

The American Friend is out on 22nd October on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by AX1 Films. The transfer looks and sounds fantastic, with a clean and detailed, but naturally grainy look and solid audio.

You get a few special features too:

– NEW RESTORED 4K DIGITAL TRANSFER commissioned by the Wim Wenders Foundation and supervised by director Wim Wenders
– Introduction by Wim Wenders
– Feature-length commentary with Wim Wenders and Dennis Hopper
– Deleted scenes with optional commentary
– Documentary “Restoring Time”
– Exclusive limited-edition booklet
– New English subtitle translation approved by Wenders

As with the Kings of the Road Blu-Ray, the Wenders introduction is indispensable. I love hearing the director talk about his work (and other films). He’s an intelligent man with a calm manner yet is clearly passionate about his work and cinema in general. His commentary (with some contribution from Hopper) is decent too, although it’s not as engaging and focussed as the introduction. The deleted scenes are quite interesting, particularly when watched with Wenders’ commentary.

The “Restoring Time” piece showed up on the Kings of the Road Blu-Ray too and focuses on the restoration process, not just of this film but of a number of titles from Wenders’ back catalogue. It’s interesting and I find it heartwarming to see films being kept alive with such dedication.

The booklet is wonderful too and filled with essays and interviews about the film.

The American Friend
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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