While most people would prefer never to meet a sociopath in person, one can be quite entertaining when observed at a safe distance, especially within a fictional context. Among the greatest characters in the great brotherhood of fictional sociopaths is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, who has featured in five of her novels as well as in several film adaptations. The adaptation that is likely to be familiar to most moviegoers is Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film, The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon in the title role, but it softens too many of Ripley’s rough edges and is just too sunny and beautiful (and Damon is too handsome and charming) to convey the essential meanness and amorality of Ripley’s character.
A quite different take on Tom Ripley is provided in The American Friend, a 1977 film adaptation of the novel Ripley’s Game directed by Wim Wenders and starring Dennis Hopper as Ripley. Reportedly, Highsmith did not like Hopper’s take on Ripley when she first saw the film, declaring that it was nothing like the character she wrote, but warmed to it on a second viewing and declared that Hopper had indeed captured the essence of the character.
There’s nothing glamorous in Hopper’s Ripley. If he’s making a nice living selling forged artwork, it’s not reflected in his appearance or manner. In fact, he seems to be scraping out a living and has acquired no better manners than when he was running postal box scams in the first Ripley novel. Wenders reversed the main settings of the film, putting the primary action in Hamburg and having the characters travel to Paris (Highsmith wrote it the other way around), which is a choice that adds to the dark and gritty feel of this adaptation. I’m not trying to knock Hamburg, but if you put the Reeperbahn up next to the City of Light, you’ll see what I mean.
Bruno Ganz plays Jonathan Zimmerman (Jonathan Trevanny in the novel), a terminally ill picture framer and devoted family man. After he insults Ripley at an art auction, the latter takes revenge by hooking Zimmerman into a murder-for-hire scheme. Presented with false test results that suggest he hasn’t long to live, Zimmerman agrees to become a hit man in return for money to help his wife and son after his apparently imminent death.
Wenders makes no attempt to create a strictly naturalistic film, but goes instead for a kind of heightened realism that is strongly reflected in the cinematography. One technique Wenders uses again and again is to set one bright color (the orange of a bed sheet or a Volkswagen, the yellow of a child’s rain jacket, or the red stripes of a scarf) in a scene otherwise characterized by desaturated blues and greys. Another interesting choice was to cast many film directors in less than savoury roles. Wenders refers to these characters as “gangsters”. Among others, Nicholas Ray plays the art forger whose work Ripley passes off as genuine, Sam Fuller plays one of the figures targeted for assassination by Ripley, Peter Lilienthal plays a bodyguard, and Gérard Blain plays the mobster who asks Ripley to execute a hit on one of his rivals.
There was plenty of drama behind the scenes of The American Friend, and it’s a tribute to all concerned that it came out well in the end. The two leading men, Hopper and Ganz, had wildly different working processes that led to inevitable on-set conflict. Hopper was a movie star that liked to wing it, concentrating on getting the mood of a scene and character while being spontaneous in the role, while Ganz was a theater actor (this was his first significant movie role) who prepared meticulously and was thrown off by Hopper’s improvisations.
The clash of styles was heightened by the fact that Hopper arrived directly from shooting Apocalypse Now and was still imbibing some of the controlled substances legendarily consumed during that shoot. After a few days of conflict, the two got into a knock-down, drag-out fight, followed by a night of drinking together. This experience seems to have encouraged them to meet each other in the middle, so Hopper became more concerned with preparation and learning his dialogue. Ganz became more open to improvisation and reacting in the moment.
The Criterion Blu-ray release of The American Friend is based on a digital 4K restoration from the original 35mm negative, with retouching and color correction, and the original mono sound remixed in Dolby Stereo. It looks and sounds fantastic, and does full justice to Wenders’ striking color sense, Robby Müller’s cinematography, and Jürgen Knieper’s music.
The disc comes with a strong package of extras, the most important of which are a commentary track by Wenders and Hopper, and video interviews with Wenders and Ganz. The commentary track, recorded in 2002, is more Wenders than Hopper, and offers more general information about the film and the conditions of its production than it does scene specific commentary. Much of the same information is included in the 2015 video interview with Wenders (37 min.), while the 2015 video interview with Ganz offers fresh insights, including his version of some of the incidents mentioned by Wenders. Other extras include deleted scenes (35 min.) with commentary by Wenders, the film’s trailer, and liner notes including an essay by Francine Prose.