Friday 1 July 2022

From the archive: "The American Friend"

"What's wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?" Nothing in theory, except that the hombre wearing the Stetson in
The American Friend, Wim Wenders' quietly fascinating 1977 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, is Dennis Hopper in the midst of his wild(er)ness years, an embodiment of America's insidious influence on the European everyday. Worse: as Hopper's Ripley befriends Bruno Ganz's terminally ill art restorer Zimmermann, Wenders notes just how dangerously seductive this interloper is. He has money, and a gun, and charisma besides; we forever wonder which of these weapons he's going to turn on his quarry next. Mostly, Wenders uses Highsmith's still-compelling plot - Ripley recruiting Zimmermann to carry out a hit in Paris with the promise of a payday for his soon-to-be-bereaved wife and child - as an opportunity to tour his shabby, beat-up location with then-emergent Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller. One look at the framer's cramped digs, and we can see why he's so tempted by Ripley's filthy lucre; Paris makes for an obvious upgrade, but it requires a certain amount of dirty work to get there.

Wenders stages a nifty slo-mo pursuit around the Métro, where there aren't crowds enough for Ripley to discreetly take down his Stalin-lookalike target, but generally shirks the pulpy thrills provided by Liliana Caviani's equally leftfield, rather fun 2003 adaptation in favour of a cooler, more cerebral approach. This is the thinking person's Highsmith - it has subtitles in places, and everything - and it's a clever touch, commensurate with the author's thinking on the banality of evil, that this Ripley is less an outright sociopath than a subcontractor, a member of the globetrotting executive class setting others up for a fall. With the eponymous anti-hero ducking out of sight for so long - Hopper's left hanging with Nicholas Ray as a spellbound painter and giving slightly too big a performance for his surrounds - the Ganz narrative just about holds the attention, but Wenders' pacing proves idiosyncratic to a fault: the movie starts to drag a little, and can never entirely escape the spectre of what we now call the Europudding. Still, there's a handful of connoisseurial pleasures to be savoured - not least several witty visual jokes on the very idea of framing - and a nicely ambiguous ending, involving the movies' second most prominent VW Beetle after Herbie.

(February 2019)

The American Friend is reissued to cinemas today as part of Curzon's Wim Wenders retrospective, and is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

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