Movie Review: The American Friend (The Cinematic Mr. Ripley #4)

This is the fourth post in The Cinematic Mr. Ripley, a series for the MovieThoughts category of my blog that considers moral themes in Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels and the film adaptations of those books. This post looks at The American Friend, the 1977 film written and directed by Wim Wenders and primarily adapted from the novel Ripley’s Game.

Published in 1974, Patricia Highsmith establishes in chapter 1 of her book Ripley’s Game that the story starts “six months after the Derwatt episode” of Ripley Under Ground. That previous novel (maybe set the year it was published, maybe not) described Tom as 31 years old. He’s smarter than when he first committed murder. One would assume that with three murders and various con jobs behind him, Tom Ripley can’t be surprised anymore. However, this book proves that thesis wrong.

In the beginning, Ripley is contacted by Reeves Minot, a mid-level criminal in Hamburg who pays Tom for small-time smuggling jobs. Reeves wants some Mafia operatives removed before they intrude on his territory. Reeves seeks Ripley’s help because Reeves wants someone with no criminal record or connections to blab about. Ripley brushes off the idea… but after Reeves leaves, he remembers an Englishman who insulted him at a recent dinner party. Jonathon Trevanny is married with a son, works as a picture framer, and has leukemia. Jonathon could use the $40,000 that Reeves offered to the assassin…

Via Criterion

The American Friend (1977), written and directed by Wim Wenders, is famous for playing fast and loose with this plot. It opens with a scene of Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper) in New York visiting Pogash (Nicholas Ray), an aging art forger who gives Ripley “recently discovered” last paintings by the great Derwatt. This art forging business is based on Ripley Under Ground, although Nicholas Ray isn’t named after forger Bernard Tufts nor acts anything like that character.

The conversation between Pogash and Ripley is interesting but hard to decipher. Ripley asks about Pogash’s wife and Pogash says, “What wife?” Pogash notes the Stetson cowboy hat that Ripley wears, asks if Ripley wears it at his home in Hamburg. Ripley takes off the hat, examines it, and says “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?”

Some of this elliptical quality may be accidental. Wenders said in interviews included in Criterion’s edition that his road trip movies barely had plots, so he wanted to adapt a Highsmith thriller to gain a plot to work with. There are moments in the film – wide shots of Hamburg and Paris, bits of New York’s skyline – that suggest a road trip movie going through urban landscapes.

However, Wenders also seems to have planned this thriller to lack a tightly engineered plot. Roger Ebert noted that The American Friend is part of the New German Cinema which didn’t mind looking strange. Furthermore, “there’s something cheerfully perverse about filming a thriller and then tossing out the parts that would help it make sense… [Wenders] challenges us to admit that we watch (and read) thrillers as much for atmosphere as for plot.”

The strangeness continues throughout the film. The novel’s basic plot is followed: Jonathon Trevanny insults Ripley at an event. Reeves contacts Jonathon about “a little job.” Jonathon reluctantly kills one Mafiosi. Ripley helps him kill the second Mafiosi so he can collect his full fee. Jonathon’s mysterious behavior distances him from his family. Ripley and Jonathon work together to clean up loose ends. All this of this is more or less straightforward.

However, The American Friend is filled with little character moments that don’t drive the plot. Jonathon (played by Bruno Ganz) sits in his picture framing shop, playing with a strip of gold leaf, watching it twist in the air, then comes out of his reverie and calls Reeves to take the job. Ripley walks around his Hamburg manor reciting into a tape recorder (“There is nothing to fear except fear itself. I know less and less about who I am or who anyone else is”). Later, Ripley sits on his pool table, taking selfies with a polaroid.

These little improvisations are different from the first Ripley film, Purple Noon, which felt like the actors had learned a script then improvised lines on set. That film had a sense of fluidity and mystery, but the movie still gave dialogue that hinted at backstory and explanations. Here, we don’t know anything about the characters’ pasts, no dialogue about what shaped them. As a Films in Focus video essay puts it, “[The American Friend] never explains its characters. It only shows.”

Because of this opaque approach, and because Wenders gave Dennis Hopper free reign to develop his character, it’s hard to read this Tom Ripley. The Atlantic‘s Christopher Orr and Criterion’s Francine Prose both argue that Ripley’s cowboy clothing make him a symbol of American culture. Wenders is famous for being fascinated with the American landscape, a fascination and contempt tied to his experience growing up in West Germany. Mark Cousins describes how Wenders’ generation struggled to forge a new identity, unsure what to do with their national past or how to feel about the Allied conquerors. The results, New German Cinema, often had a complex attitude to Hollywood or America as a whole.

Given that internal conflict, it’s not surprising that Wenders presents Jonathon as a West German with few resources, jealous of his prosperous American friend. In an art auction scene, one of Jonathon’s friends buys a painting and chats about how it will sell in New York, and his coming vacation to Texas. Jonathon repeats “New York” and “Texas” with half-reverence, half-scorn.

Given Jonathon’s sad situation, his choice to commit murder for money is understandable, if not justifiable. In Highsmith’s book, Jonathon justifies his killings even as he pays terrible prices (his family leaves him, revenge-seeking Mafiosi trail him). Nick Jones highlights how Highsmith makes Ripley a “malevolent spirit” who corrupts the Trevanny family. At the same time, Jonathon is more concerned about his illness than the morality of his actions (provided he only kills career criminals). Tom, as usual, isn’t fazed by the pain he creates for other people.

In short, Highsmith’s novel has physical risks but not moral ones. Ripley’s amoral worldview sees him through, and Jonathon is tormented by the consequences, not his actual killings. Wender creates something different with his measured melancholy across the film. He also provides scenes of Jonathon crying after his second killing and collapsing in his apartment when he realizes his family has left. This is a man who rationalized his evil choices, then mourns when those choices drives his family away.

What is more surprising is that Wenders doesn’t let Ripley get away either. In the novel, as in every one of Highsmith’s five Tom Ripley novels, Tom gets away with his crimes. Given Wenders’ cowboy imagery, The American Friend could have literally ended with Ripley triumphantly walking into the sunset.

Instead, to quote Magda Mariamidze, this Tom Ripley is “empty inside.” His odd antics (reciting poetry into a tape recorder, dressing like a cowboy, taking Polaroid selfies on his pool table, trading kiddie toys with Jonathon) all seem like cheap thrills to stay interested. Ripley’s home (a statuesque mansion whose interior includes gaudy red bedroom curtains and green beer signs over the pool table) suggests a manic depressive decorated it. Ripley is lonely, depressed, and nothing fills that void. After helping Jonathon commit the second killing, the two men meet in a bar and Jonathon asks what Ripley wants.

“I would like to be your friend,” Ripley says, “but I know friendship isn’t possible.”

Blogger Nathaniel Booth made an interesting suggestion that Matt Damon’s Ripley in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film is a reverse-engineered version of Hopper’s Ripley. The same melancholy loneliness is there, although Wenders communicates this more by action than dialogue.

That sense of melancholy extends to the elusive art forger Pogash. He comes across as acerbic in his three scenes (grouchy at Ripley for not bringing money sooner, ruminating about how he’s done well as a dead painter under someone else’s name). In one of the movie’s more iconic scenes, Pogash and Ripley chat while sitting on a New York highway overpass. Ripley mutters that he feels confused, takes the forged paintings, and walks off. Pogash watches him leave and says: “A little older… a little more confused.”

At the movie’s end, after Ripley and Jonathon kill the Mafiosi and the strain kills Jonathon, Wenders cuts back to that overpass image. Pogash looks around, and walks back to his apartment as the end credits play. Nicholas Ray isn’t quite a Greek chorus (there’s only one of him and he doesn’t say much). However, his presence bookending the film suggests that he communicates its main point: all these things are vanity.

Because all of the main characters in The American Friend are somehow involved in crime, there is a moral weight to Wenders’ melancholy. Jonathon gets money for his family, but loses his family and the job leads to his death. Tom is the same manic depressive he was at the movie’s start. Reeves escapes with his life, but the Mafia beat him up when they find him. Pogash was a sad reluctant criminal, and still is at the end.

All this melancholy isn’t as defined as the tragedy in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Minghella’s film has a tight plot structure with recurring images and quotes that verbalize its ideas. Wenders’ film meanders more. Its themes are much harder to describe. Still, overhanging it all, is a sense that crime isn’t worth it.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

6 thoughts on “Movie Review: The American Friend (The Cinematic Mr. Ripley #4)

  1. Pingback: The Cinematic Mr. Ripley: Introducing A MovieThoughts Series – G. Connor Salter

  2. Pingback: Movie Review: Purple Noon (The Cinematic Mr. Ripley #1) – G. Connor Salter

  3. Pingback: Movie Review: The Talented Mr. Ripley (The Cinematic Mr. Ripley #2) – G. Connor Salter

  4. Pingback: Movie Review: Ripley’s Game (The Cinematic Mr. Ripley #5) – G. Connor Salter

  5. Pingback: MovieThoughts Review: Deep Water (2022) – G. Connor Salter

  6. Pingback: The Cinematic Mr Ripley: Final Thoughts and Factoids – G. Connor Salter

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