Saturday, August 28, 2010


The recent death of Dennis Hopper brought to mind several of the great films he was in, including Rebel Without A Cause, Giant, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, and Blue Velvet. One film that emerged in 1977 from the New German Cinema was THE AMERICAN FRIEND. It was directed by Wim Wenders and was loosely based on the novel Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith.

THE AMERICAN FRIEND moves with a slow burn and has a dark, tense atmosphere where the characters wander through a no-man's land of deceit. It is a serious film with a suspenseful plot. It is the coming together of a German art film with American Film Noir. 

Hopper plays Tom Ripley as an existential American cowboy. The film opens with him arriving in New York at the loft of a painter who forges work that Ripley traffics back to Europe. The painter is played by Nicholas Ray who was the director of Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar among others. The film also has other directors including Samuel Fuller playing gangsters. It takes place in New York, Hamburg, and Paris and deals with the American influence on post WWII Germany.

Besides moving forged paintings, Ripley also has connections to the underworld and they need someone unknown to carry out a couple of assassinations. Ripley meets a picture framer in Hamburg who he discovers is suffering from a rare and possibly fatal blood disease. The framer, Jonathan Zimmerman, is played by the great German actor Bruno Ganz. He is enlisted by Ripley to carry out the murders in exchange for money that will give security to Zimmerman's family. But is Zimmerman really dying, or has he just been manipulated by Ripley? The characters are not sure of each other and the actors reveal this with short dialogue and distrustful glances. The film depicts a great contrast between two men from different cultures who are drawn into a reluctant friendship. 

Wenders creates a paranoid and tense atmosphere to frame the story. There is a dark, moody soundtrack and the cinematography by Robby Muller is beautiful and ominous with its high contrast and saturated colors.

There are two amazing sequences of suspense that are worthy of Hitchcock. One is in the Paris metro and the other on a train in which Ripley shows up to help Zimmerman complete the hit.

There are also moments of dark humor and scenes that reveal detail and add to the mood, while not necessarily being essential to the narrative. Some of these are the most memorable scenes from the film. One has Nicholas Ray walking on a wall near the West Side Highway. The camera moves to a close-up of him with his black eye patch. "A little bit older, a little more confused." There is also a scene of Hopper laying on his pool table talking into his tape recorder. "The only thing to fear is fear itself. I know less and less of who I am." Another shot shows Ganz working with his frames and embellishing them with gold leaf. Near the end of the film there is a reference to the song Drive My Car by the Beatles, that is absurdly funny.

The film ends with a surreal scene on a beach with a burning ambulance and Ganz and his wife played by Lisa Kreuzer driving off in an orange volkswagon leaving Hopper alone.

THE AMERICAN FRIEND is a rich cinematic experience about spiritual isolation and moral ambiguity in a world where we must make difficult choices to deal with the problems that confront us in life.

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