The American Friend
d. Wim Wenders (1977)
The Criterion Collection Spine: #793
Blu-ray Release Date: January 12, 2016

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.

An admirer of Patricia Highsmith’s novels, Wim Wenders wanted to adapt one into a film, but when he tried to procure the rights he was disappointed to find that the rights to his favorites were not available. Word got around that Wenders was shopping her books, so Highsmith invited him to visit her as she was working on a new novel. The meeting was fruitful: she offered him the rights to the yet unpublished Ripley’s Game, the third of what would become five Ripley novels. Lovers of the Ripley books might be disappointed if Wender’s adaptation, which is brilliantly retitled as The American Friend and has Dennis Hopper as the famous American criminal, does not present the same Ripley they are used to. The novels portray Tom Ripley as a chilly, amoral con-artist and killer who lives the highlife with a distinct taste for European culture. In The American Friend, Hopper’s Ripley is still the cruel puppeteer who derives some pleasure in putting people in awful situations, but what on earth is he doing in a Stetson walking around in the seedier parts of New York and Amhurst? Who cares! Wenders may have been less than faithful to the character, but The American Friend is a brilliant film interested in its own world, an ugly world that seethes with anxiety and desperation, just the kind of things that feed Hopper’s Ripley.

The American Friend Cover

Though I just spent a long paragraph talking about Tom Ripley, The American Friend is mostly concerned with the life he plays with, that of Jonathan Zimmermann, brilliantly performed by Bruno Ganz.

The kindly Zimmermann runs a framing shop that sometimes gets him out into the art world. He’s heard of Tom Ripley, and though we don’t know exactly what he’s heard we understand he doesn’t respect Ripley; at an auction where Ripley is engaged in a forgery scheme, Ripley offer’s his hand to Zimmermann but Zimmermann refuses, simply says, “I’ve heard of you,” and then walks away.

Then again, maybe Zimmermann doesn’t have anything against Ripley in particular. Ripley quickly learns that Zimmermann has been acting strange lately because he is suffering from some blood disease. Zimmermann thinks he is dying. That’s a depressing thought in an of itself, but Zimmermann is also often distracted from what’s going on around him by thoughts of his wife and young son. What will they do when he is dead? It’s possible, then, that Zimmermann wasn’t being deliberately rude; he just doesn’t remember what to do in those situations.

The American Friend 1

Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Zimmermann.

Ganz’s Zimmermann is a man constantly anxious and constantly distracted. He’s soft spoken and not particularly forceful to those around him, even letting a woman deliberately underpay him for his work. He can bring himself to remind this woman of their agreement but not much more.

This is the life that Ripley decides to upend, ostensibly to pay Zimmermann back for slighting him at the auction but also, and perhaps more so, for a simple lark. When the French criminal Raoul Minot l tries to hire Ripley to murder a rival, Ripley refuses. But then his sick mind kicks in, and he tells Minot to try to hire Zimmermann. To entice Zimmermann, Ripley and Minot falsify his lab tests to make his death appear imminent. Seeing this as a way to care for his family after his impending death, Zimmermann fearfully agrees.

The American Friend 2

Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley.

Much of the film becomes, at this point, a portrait of Zimmermann’s rising pulse while the plot thickens around him. He is terrified of dying, he is terrified of killing, and he’d really rather just go to sleep. He’s a sickening combination of anxiety and numbness. He looks like he could drop dead at any moment for forgetting to breathe. We also wonder just how on earth this simple man will survive his job as a murderer-for-hire.

The American Friend 3

Surprisingly, as he monitors the situation, Ripley becomes fond of Zimmermann, and they become unlikely friends to the point Ripley confesses:

Zimmermann: Why did you spread this rumor that I am with one foot in the grave?

Ripley: Remember that day we were introduced at the auction? You said, “I’ve heard of you.” You said that in a very nasty way.

Zimmermann: That was all?

Ripley: Isn’t that enough?

Playful and petty, Ripley has Zimmermann, now his friend, for his own amusement. Though in the book Ripley is married, he’s presented as completely alone in this film, and his glee at finding Zimmermann is disturbing, even if his admiration for Zimmermann comes from genuine heart. By this time, naturally, it’s too late for Zimmermann to change course. Wonderfully paced, perfectly acted, with thrilling set-pieces at the train station and on the train, the film tracks this strange pairing through the moody world.

The Criterion Edition: Though not as stacked with supplements as some recent releases have been, the material we get is satisfying.

  • First, we get a 2002 full-length audio commentary featuring Wenders and Hopper. Besides talking about the production, Wenders talks about how he came about the rights to adapt the novel. I was interested to learn that he wasn’t particularly thrilled the novel was a Ripley novel, as those weren’t his favorite Highsmith novels — said he didn’t get the character (something Highsmith apparently agreed with after she saw the film).
  • “Too Much on My Mind”: Next is a new 37:31-minute interview with Wenders where he retraces and expands upon some of the material from the commentary. Most delightful tidbit? Ganz and Hopper actually got into a fistfight on set, though they fixed things and became great friends.
  • We also get a new 27:16-minute interview with Ganz in which Ganz also talks about getting into the fight with Hopper. Ganz was nervous during filming — it was his debut — but that’s to our benefit. I came to respect him so much after viewing the film that this feature was a treat.
  • Perhaps the most surprising feature to me is the 34:36 minutes of deleted scenes with audio commentary by Wenders who explains why the scenes were not used. It’s a lot of material, mostly about side plots, particularly about Zimmermann’s family, and though I see why the scenes were cut I loved being able to peak behind the curtains to see more of the lives I was fascinated with because of the movie.
  • We also get the original trailer and a fold-out insert featuring an essay, “Little Lies and Big Disasters,” by Francine Prose.
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