A couple months ago I had the opportunity to interview German filmmaker Wim Wenders at his home in Los Angeles. The only memento he had from any of his films was a poster for The American Friend framed and sitting on the floor in a back room. It got me intrigued. I’d seen several of Wenders’ films over the years, such as the masterful Wings of Desire, as well as Kings of the Road, Alice in the Cities, Buena Vista Social Club, and the awful End of Violence. But until last Saturday, I’d never seen 1976’s The American Friend, even though it’s an adaptation of one of my favorite books, Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith.
Although Wenders’ film takes some liberties with the book that Valarie and I were a little perplexed by, I loved the film anyway, largely because of the cast and cinematography. Bruno Ganz was superb as a dying picture framer who agrees to assassinate a mobster in order to earn money for his family. He was almost unrecognizable from his character in Wings of Desire, even though a moustache and a few years of aging were the only difference. Dennis Hopper seemed a very unlikely choice as Tom Ripley (a character who’s also been played by Matt Damon and, in an adaptation of the same book by The Night Porter’s Liliana Cavani, John Malkovich), especially clad in a very un-Ripley-like cowboy hat. But somehow I bought Hopper anyway, perhaps because he was more obviously American, which enhanced Wenders’ juxtaposition of American and European culture, a common theme in his films.
I think the plot of this movie would take a little getting used to for those who haven’t read Ripley’s book, although if you’ve seen Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (two books before Ripley’s Game) you have a head start. But like so many great films of the mid-1970s, this movie combines a gorgeous look—at once gritty and beautiful—with a penetrating question of moral ambiguity. The American Friend is now easily my second favorite Wenders film after Wings of Desire.