Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend)
Director Wim Wenders Stars Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kreuzer West Germany/France 1977 Language German (with English subtitles), French, English 2hr 5mins Colour
'What's wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?'
Poor Wim Wenders. Fate played a nasty trick on him: it gave him the friendship of Bono, surely a terrible thing in itself, but which also resulted in The Million Dollar Hotel, the second worst film ever made by a major director. It has a wretchedness that truly is all its own – 13 years after I saw it, the thought still makes me shudder.
Not that Bono is solely responsible for Wenders’ fall from grace. I think there’s something big and empty, pompous and silly about his work from the mid-’80s onwards. But The American Friend comes from the 1970s, during what saner critics generally consider his prime.
It’s based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, reputedly loosely. I’ve never read the book, so I can’t back that up, but Tom Ripley as played by Dennis Hopper is a long way from his other movie incarnations.
He’s running an art scam between New York and Hamburg, where he lives in a crumbling neo-classical mansion, and goes in for exaggerated Americanisms – huge early ’60s car, pool table and jukebox, cowboy hat. His hustle brings him into contact with Jonathan (Bruno Ganz), a skilled picture framer suffering from a rare blood disease. That (indirectly) leads to Jonathan being offered a large sum of money to carry out a mob hit, the kind of cash that could his family afloat if his condition were to kill him.
It’s Jonathan rather than Ripley who is the central character here, a man instantly out of his depth in the criminal world. There is an anticipation of Breaking Bad, of how the initial sincere, if misguided, intention soon spirals into something very messy. Ganz is excellent as the scared, conflicted and occasionally giddy Jonathan.
Wenders is often considered something of an heir to Michelangelo Antonioni, but compared to The Passenger, this is a fairly straight thriller, with action and scares and some stunts. (Perhaps as a measure of Wenders’ respect for genre movies, among a whole bunch of directors acting here are two of the masters of film noir, Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller).
Of course, it’s also still a mid-1970s European art-house film – for instance, there’s a riff about Ripley’s doomed struggle to pin down his own identity, aided by some hi-tech gadgets (a dictaphone and a Polaroid camera). And it’s beautifully shot by regular Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, capturing the mix of the crumbling past and shiny infrastructure in the West Germany and France of the time. In terms of heightened lighting and rich colour, it looks ahead to 1980s, and quite unlike the murky conspiracy thrillers that Hollywood had been making in the first half of the decade.
That leaves the Dennis Hopper question. There are lots of people in Hollywood who have terrible delusions that they are any use at something other than looking good on film, but Hopper actually was a better photographer than an actor. On screen, he was often be a tornado of tics and mannerisms. Sometimes that was horrible, but sometimes it fits. He’s OK here (and clearly having a lot of fun). As I said earlier, I suspect he’s nothing like Highsmith’s Ripley.
This is a film with a lot of stuff going on at several different levels, plenty of smart details to grab on to, much to enjoy while you’re watching and also much to think about afterwards. For a Wenders sceptic like me, this is abundant proof that he was good before he went bad.