A dying man reluctantly takes on a job as a hit man in order to have money to leave to his widow.
Heinz Joachim Klein
Satya Della Manitou
The American Friend
Highsmith's skill with the Ripley character, which she sustained throughout five novels over nearly 40 years, was in creating someone severely cold-blooded and devious and at the same time so appealing and attractive. As Sam Jordinson wrote in The Guardian in 2015: "It is near impossible, I would say, not to root for Tom Ripley. Not to like him. Not, on some level, to want him to win. Patricia Highsmith does a fine job of ensuring he wheedles his way into our sympathies."
Ripley retains this unsettling complexity in German director Wim Wenders' The American Friend (1977). Wenders was a big fan of the author and sought to adapt two of her other books. Because the rights to those novels were unavailable, Highsmith offered him the unpublished manuscript of what was to become the third book in the Ripley saga, Ripley's Game, eventually published in 1974. Dennis Hopper, rarely the most sympathetic presence on any screen, was an unexpected choice for the role (suggested by Wenders' first choice, John Cassavetes, when he turned down the part). At first, Highsmith didn't at all like Hopper as Ripley and felt Wenders had missed her intentions in the book, but upon seeing The American Friend for the second time several months later, the author changed her mind and gave high praise to both the director and his star.
She was apparently swayed by what Hopper (and the script) brought to Ripley - a sophisticated ease and swagger masking crushing self-doubt and existential angst. Early on in the film, Ripley dictates into a tape-recorder diary, "I know less and less about who I am. Or who anybody else is." The cold machinations of his game, starting as off-handed revenge for an insult, exist side by side with the genuine warmth he comes to feel for his victim, a desire for friendship and connection, an admiration growing out of envy and eventual pangs of conscience that lead him to step in and help the man he has set up for disaster.
The relationship that develops between the American Ripley and his new German friend, Jonathan Zimmermann, a struggling picture framer and restorer, begins on a sour note when Zimmermann, meeting Ripley for the first time, indicates that he dislikes Ripley's reputation as a con man and wheeler dealer in expensive art. ("I don't like people who buy paintings as an investment.") What Jonathan doesn't know is that the American is at the center of a scheme to fence "newly discovered" works by a "dead" artist, Derwatt, a character borrowed from an earlier Highsmith novel, Ripley Under Ground. In Wenders' telling, Derwatt has faked his own death in order to drive up the price of his paintings, which are peddled by Ripley at expensive European auction houses.
As payback for the public slight, Ripley suggests to a criminal associate, Minot, that Zimmermann, who he has learned has a fatal blood disease, might be the best person to carry out an underworld hit, since his lack of any connection to the murder would protect him from suspicion and his desperate end-of-life circumstances would render him easily manipulatable. Ripley even goes so far as starting a rumor that the frame shop owner has less time to live than he expected with no longer any hope for a cure.
Ripley has second thoughts once he gets to know Zimmermann better, and Hopper shows obvious and tender affection for this hapless stranger (perhaps something more, coming from a character whose sexuality has been a matter of speculation throughout the five novels and subsequent film versions). By that point, however, the wheels are set in motion, and Zimmermann, desperate to leave his wife and son money to survive after his death, agrees to take Minot's offer of substantial sums and complimentary sessions with medical specialists.
Wenders doesn't stint on the maneuverings and intrigues of a complex psychological thriller, but he is also after something more here. This is a film about looking, seeing, about appearances that both deceive and reveal and the traps they can be for the heedless observer. The motif is established in the very first scene as Derwatt, played by maverick Hollywood director Nicholas Ray, gazes at one of his paintings, covering first one eye, then another, then both. Throughout the movie, characters are either looking through or being seen through frames within the film frame, whether actual picture frames, windows, cameras and screens, or even frames created by their own hands to restrict and define their point of view.
By extension, it's also a film about cinema and the tricks it can play on our eyes. Zimmermann is a collector of motion picture toys and curios: a lampshade that simulates the appearance of a moving train, a picture with the illusion of an active waterfall, nickelodeons, stereoscopes, an erotic slide strip mini-device Ripley gives him that uses vintage nudes as demonstrations of photography lighting, a machine that mimics the mechanism for advancing film through a camera.
This cinematic reference is reflected in the casting, too. Because Hopper was also known as a director at this point (Easy Rider, 1969), Wenders surrounds him with other noted film directors in key roles, including Ray (In a Lonely Place, 1950; Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), Peter Lilienthal, Gérard Blain, Daniel Schmid, Jean Eustache (The Mother and the Whore, 1973), Rudolf Schündler and American director Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street, 1953; Shock Corridor, 1963) as a crime boss. Wenders himself makes a cameo as the heavily bandaged figure in the back of an ambulance near the film's climax.
Also rather obviously, given the title, this is a film about the connection between Europe and the US, the old country vs. the new. Ripley keeps one foot in the continent, living in a Hamburg mansion in what he imagines to be the life of the European elite, while firmly embroiled in his dark business dealings stateside. He clearly envies Zimmermann's quiet emotional life, his appearance of self-possession and familial contentment and his creativity. "I always wanted to be able to make something with my hands. Well, some people have it and some people don't," he tells the framer early on. Late in the movie, he and Zimmermann have an exchange in which Ripley says, "I envy you, the smell of paint and wood... And when you finish something, you can see what you've done." When Zimmermann asks him what he makes instead, Ripley answers bitterly, "I make money."
The sensitive portrayal of Zimmermann by Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who would later appear in Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987) and its quasi-sequel Faraway, So Close! (1993), does much to heighten the complex relationship between the two men and the two worlds they represent. Almost passive at first, Ganz as Zimmermann finds himself drawn in to the deadly game for more than just monetary gain, displaying a certain excitement and pleasure at playing the part of a criminal assassin, the anti-hero of an American film noir.
The title as released was reportedly Hopper's suggestion to Wenders, who toyed with calling the film "Rule Without Exception" and, aptly, "Framed." The story was filmed again by Liliana Cavani in 2002 under Highsmith's original title and using the book's original settings, with John Malkovich as Ripley. The character also appears in adaptations of other novels, portrayed by Alain Delon in Purple Noon (1960), Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Barry Pepper in Ripley Under Ground (2005) and Keefe Brasselle in a Westinghouse Studio One television episode in 1956.
Director: Wim Wenders
Producer: Wim Wenders, Joachim von Mengershausen
Screenplay: Wim Wenders, based on the novel Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Editing: Peter Przygodda
Art Direction: Heidi Lüdi, Toni Lüdi
Music: Jürgen Knieper
Cast: Dennis Hopper (Tom Ripley), Bruno Ganz (Jonathan Zimmermann), Lisa Kreuzer (Marianne Zimmermann), Gérard Blain (Raoul Minot), Nicholas Ray (Derwatt), Samuel Fuller (Der Amerikaner)
By Rob Nixon
The American Friend
Seven movie directors are in the cast of this film, all of them (by design) playing criminals.
Released in United States 1977
Released in United States 1991
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States 1977
Released in United States 1977 (Shown at New York Film Festival September/October 1977.)
Released in United States 1991 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum: Sam Fuller Retrospective) July 31-August 1, 1991.)
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in Los Angeles (American Cinematheque) as part of program "The Long & Winding Road: The Films of Wim Wenders" September 27 - October 12, 1996.)
Shown at New York Film Festival September/October 1977.