The American Friend

Murder makes him come alive
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1977
Director: 
Wim Wenders
Starring: 
Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kreuzer, Gerard Blain
The Setup: 
Adaptation of Ripley's Game, in which Ripley induces another man to become a murderer.
Discussion: 

So I’m a fan of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, the first of which is excellent, the second and third [of which this film is an adaptation] are quite good, and the rest are reliable good fun. The movies, sadly, don’t quite measure up, but are usually interesting, or as they say, are more interesting than a colonoscopy. I went back and watched the relatively recent Ripley’s Game, with John Malkovich as Ripley, and still found it disappointing on the second round, although it does hew closer to the novel than this, a version that predates it [and all of the Ripley films, save Purple Noon], which may be why it’s so unlike any of the others.

We open with the NYC SoHo of 1977, World Trade Center still in place, and a far less developed downtown. Ripley, here played by Dennis Hopper, goes to visit a painter [played by director Nicholas Ray... Samuel Fuller also appears in a small role, btw] who is pumping out forgeries of a famous painter who is dead. Ripley brings them to market and sells them at high prices. This whole thing is the focus of the novel Ripley Under Ground, in which the forgeries come close to being discovered. Anyway, soon we’re in Hamburg at an auction, where Ripley overhears local framer Jonathan Zimmerman saying he suspects the forgery. Later, when introduced, Jon says “Oh, I’ve heard of you,” with a certain tone, and refuses to shake Ripley’s hand. This insult was too minor and indirect for the more recent film, which pumped it up to Jon saying Ripley had more money than taste. I like that they keep the original here, because part of the interest is that SUCH a minor insult is all it takes for Ripley to ruin this man's life.

In this film, Ripley is, well, young Dennis Hopper, who does a good job of seeming dangerous and just a bit deranged. He lives in a huge but decaying mansion in Hamburg that is decorated like a fat boy's house, with a beer sign hanging over a pool table. This is a very different interpretation than the one from the novel, which is far closer to the one presented in the Malkovich film [and in the novel, Ripley lives in France. Hamburg, especially as shown here, would be far too grimy for him]. Nevertheless, Hopper in this role has an unpredictability and danger that Malkovich just doesn't have, which makes this version closer to the actual character, despite vastly different circumstances.

A friend, Minot, stops by Ripley's and asks if he known anyone--not a known criminal--who could perform a murder. Ripley sends him Jon's way. Ripley knows that Jon has a blood disease, and an unsure life prognosis. Jon receives a telegram indicating a friend has heard his health has worsened, and he gets freaked, thinking his doctor is lying to him. He has a wife, Marianne, and a young son, who he is worried about leaving penniless. Minot shows up and says that if he'll perform the murder, Minot will arrange Jon to see a better doctor and get a second opinion. Notice how Wenders using the amplified sounds of seagulls and machines to demonstrate the troubled quality of Jon's mind. Jon finally calls and agrees to at least see the doctor.

SPOILERS > > >
He goes, and gets a poor prognosis from the doctor [which we later find out is false]. He decides to go ahead with the murder, in order to leave some money for his family after his death. Then follows an excellent stalking scene as meek, mild-mannered Jonathan waits on a train platform for the target, follows him to another train, gets on, gets off, etc. as he is torn between doing it and also freaking out at what he's about to do. Ganz is able to suggest that Jonathan's mind is cracking under the strain and overwhelming significance of what he's about to do. There are many good moments; one is when the target notices him following. Another is when Jon sits down for a second and spaces out, not noticing when the target leaves the train. The whole thing is an exercise in refined, highbrow suspense. We then see him fleeing on multiple security cameras--and this is before widespread surveillance and the multiple views presented by security cameras were commonplace in films. As Jon leaves the station, the sky is blood red. Also note the use of supersaturated green to show his sickening mind throughout.

He gets some of the money, which his wife promply finds. He tells her that the doctors have made a bet on his health, which she doesn't believe for a moment. In the meantime, Minot has another murder, and tells Ripley about it before asking Jonathan. He gives Jon a garrote [small wire meant for strangling], which is a much more taxing form of murder this time. We see Jon miming hanging himself with the garrote. The murder is to happen on a train, the target has a few bodyguards this time. It doesn't look like Jon will make it when--Ripley shows up. They work together, Ripley doing most of the work, to kill the target and a bodyguard. They get away with it, and Ripley says not to tell that he was involved. He also tells Jon that he was the one that involved him, and because of the extremely tepid insult. Once home, Jon's wife takes their son and leaves him.

Word gets out that Ripley helped in the killing, and thugs from the victim's crime family are coming to Ripley's house. This is where things start changing significantly from the novel, and themes and important resonances start getting lost. In the novel, there is a major home-invasion sequence, here, it's not so big. But more importantly, here's where Ripley and Jon's extremely fucked-up friendship becomes cemented, as they wait out the night for the killers to arrive, then drive all night to dispose of the body by the sea, chatting all the way home. Here the invasion is not much, and they kill another man in his car. There's a hilarious beat as the girlfriend of one of the victims sees that he's dead, grabs her purse and starts walking home.

But here's where the movie diverts seriously from the novel. Jon's wife shows up at Ripley's. This happens in the novel, but she is immediately sent home. Here, they get her to drive one of the cars, then she and Jon abandon Ripley on the beach. Jon drives on the way home, and dies while driving. It's a good image as the car careens off the road, and an okay resolution to the film... but a rather ludicrous contrivance. After a short scene with Ripley back in New York, it's over.

While we're still in the spoilers, I'll tell you how the novel ends, so we can talk about what this film is missing. As I said, Jon and Ripley drive home together, with Ripley happily chatting about Bach and art and murder and everything. Later, the gangsters have realized that Jon was involved, and come to his house while Ripley happens to be there. They fire at Ripley, but Jon ends up in front of the bullet--the irony being Jon taking a bullet for the man who ruined his life--and dying that way. The wife later sees Ripley and spits at him, but he realizes that she has kept the money made from Jon's killings.
< < < SPOILERS END

So the film mostly works, but short-shrifts the themes of the novel, which is the complicated thing of Ripley and Jon becoming friends, despite the fact that Ripley has effectively ruined Jon's life. He has also, perversely, given Jon somewhat of a new lease on life, as before he was just laying low and waiting to die, and he comes a bit more alive as he becomes a murderer. There's also more than a touch of the homoerotic to their relationship, and the high irony of the ending, which we discussed in the spoilers. The end of the film comes off as a bit rushed, and as a result these themes are still there, just in a much paler form.

Still, as films of the Ripley novels go, this one is perhaps my favorite [yes, even above Purple Noon] just because the characterization of Ripley, while factually off, retains the dangerousness and sociopathic nature of his personality. The Malkovich version is closer to the novel, and his Ripley is much closer to the way he is presented in the novel, except that the film has him killing a man for a minor infrcation, which the careful Ripley would never do, and throughout he is essentially just John Malkovich, with all his archness and eye-rolling.

Which is not to mention that this version has an excellent performance by Bruno Ganz, who really is able to get across Jon's desperation and weakness of mind. And you have Wender's direction, with his careful use of sound and color to highten the emotions and express Jon's state of mind. And you have those two excellent murder sequences, the first of which is a first-rate example of cool, sophisticated suspense. Yeah, so you won't really go wrong with this version. And if you decide to read the Ripley novels [which steadily decline in quality], you have some good fun ahead of you.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! And read the novel, too.