Wim Wender’s The American Friend is one of those films that doesn’t immediately reveal to us what kind of film it is. It takes it’s own time doing that job and does so in a fascinating manner. Of all the films I’ve seen, I found this to be a one-of-a-kind experience. What Wenders did with it has never been done before. The most interesting thing about it is that it keeps changing it’s genre every 30 minutes. It resembles an existential drama in it’s first 30 minutes and then and becomes a hitman film in the next 30 minutes and then becomes a black comedy and a buddy film respectively. Wenders is more concerned here with mood and atmosphere more than plot and characters. It is said to be a loose adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game featuring a very popular fictional character called Tom Ripley, who has made appearances in several other film adaptations of Highsmith’s other novels.
Whatever plot is has, it concerns a shady art forger named Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper) who comes across Jonathan Zimmermann (played by Bruno Ganz), a restorer and framer of paintings and photographs working in Germany, at an art auction. Ripley learns about an incurable blood disease that Zimmermann is suffering from and when a French criminal and associate of Ripley named Raoul Minot brings him a proposal to take out a rival criminal, Ripley suggests Zimmermann’s name. Minot contacts Zimmermann and tries to persuade him to take on this job by letting him know that his illness is very serious and he doesn’t have very much time left. Zimmermann is puzzled and worried by this and frequently chases his doctor, doing tests and asking for the lab reports. Somewhere, someone has started rumors a result of a silly misunderstanding and Minot fabricates the lab reports to make Zimmermann do this job.
Zimmermann agrees to carry out the assignment in exchange for a large sum of money that is to be paid to his wife and small son. He is immediately sent to Paris to gun down the criminal inside a Metro station. The hit is successful and Zimmermann returns to Germany. Satisfied with Zimmermann’s performance, Minot brings up a second a job and this makes Ripley very uneasy. Up until this point, Ripley has been staying behind the curtain but when Zimmermann proceeds to carry out his second assignment, Ripley shows up and that’s when the real fun begins. Casting Dennis Hopper as Ripley is an example of one of those most unusual casting choices every made by a director. Hopper’s portrayal is noticeably different from Alain Delon’s in Purple Noon, Matt Damon’s in The Talented Mr. Ripley or that of John Malkovich’s in the second adaptation of Ripley’s Game that came out in 1992.
Hopper turns in yet another unpredictable and amusing performance. There is no explanation for why he does what he does. He seems to be going through an existential crisis and at times, records his philosophical ramblings on his tape recorder. At one point, he tells one character that he is very confused. I didn’t care. Like I said, I found this all very amusing. It is worth noting that two legendary American directors make their cameos in the film – Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller. It’s a pleasure to see Ray share the opening scene with Hopper and he seems as idiosyncratic as Hopper’s character. Ray plays Derwatt, a painter who faked his death to drive up the prices of his painting and Ripley helps him do it at various art auctions. Samuel Fuller plays some shady mobster who is in some way connected to the criminals that Zimmermann has been asked to take out.
As expected from a Wim Wenders film, the cinematography is exceptional. It’s handled by Robby Muller, who has worked on Wenders’ Paris, Texas and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. Wenders knows when and where to place the camera and has managed to get some really breathtaking shots (which would look really good on the Criterion Blu-ray that is about to come out in January 2016). Zimmerman’s first assignment inside the Paris Metro station is a thoroughly gripping sequence that is reminiscent of some of the sequences in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. Some critics have called the film “Hitchcockian” and I would say that they are not very far off. There is a little “Strangers in the Train” situation going on when Hopper shows up on the same train as Zimmermann is, when he is about to dispose off his second target. Hopper’s infectious, maniacal energy and his interaction with Ganz’s character gives it the feel of a black comedy.