German director Wim Wenders tends toward a certain voluptuousness in his storytelling, so even though his narratives are often quite intimate—exploring the emotional lives of small groups of characters—he’s prone to meandering scenes and slow pacing. Yet because Wenders also has a distinct visual style and a novelist’s instinct for using behavior to reveal character, the more-is-more approach often leads to fascinating results. The American Friend is a good example. Based on one of Patricia Highsmith’s acclaimed “Ripley” novels, The American Friend is nominally a thriller about art forgery, double-crosses, murders, and other such intrigue. As seen through Wenders’ unique prism, The American Friend is also a meditation on friendship, loss, and the need to value life as it happens instead of waiting for whatever’s coming down the road. The synthesis between the movie’s high and low instincts is not perfect, but cinematic artistry and thematic ambition elevate the piece far above the plane of mere pulp.
The story is convoluted, so a brief rundown of key elements should be sufficient to hint at the content. In America, con man Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) acquires paintings by an artist who faked his own death in order to increase the value of his work. After traveling to Germany, Tom sells the paintings in an auction. Tangentially connected to this scheme is German everyman Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), an art restorer whose skills have diminished because of health problems. Jonathan now makes his living by framing artwork, and Tom is one of his clients. When Tom is asked by gangsters to find an expendable person who can commit a murder, Tom suggests Jonathan for the job. (Tom picks Jonathan as a patsy because of a social slight, taking petty vindictiveness to the extreme.) Initially, Jonathan refuses to kill for money—but after receiving a grim prognosis from his doctor, Jonathan accepts the job, hoping to provide for his wife and child. Little does Jonathan suspect that Tom pressured Jonathan’s doctor to exaggerate the gravity of his patient’s prognosis. Eventually, Jonathan and Tom form an unlikely friendship, which complicates the situation in peculiar ways.
Shot by longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, The American Friend is gorgeous to behold. Mostly employing static frames that evoke the aesthetics of still photography, Müller turns the streets of Hamburg, New York, Paris and other cities into canvases, painting with light and shadows to give the film equal measures of beauty and grit. And even if the pure suspense elements are merely serviceable—an altercation on a moving train feels like watered-down Hitchcock—Wenders’ odd little touches keep the picture humane and idiosyncratic and spontaneous. For instance, Wenders cast three real-life movie directors (Gérard Blain, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray) in supporting roles. In sum, The American Friend is not a potboiler, even though that label could be applied to the source material. Rather, the film asks questions about what might happen if everyday people somehow became embroiled in outrageous schemes. With Ganz providing vulnerability and Hopper representing the opposite end of the human spectrum, The American Friend is an offbeat character study masquerading as a genre picture.
The American Friend: GROOVY