The American Friend
Wim Wenders’ 1977 film, The American Friend, was one of his first films with a large English-speaking cast although various characters speak German and French throughout the film as well. Although an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s then-as-yet-unpublished novel Ripley’s Game, Wenders incorporated elements, scenes, characters and themes from some of her earlier works in the Ripley series. He transposed many of the locations in the book from Hamburg to Paris, and vice versa, whilst also shooting portions of the film in neither place (specifically in New York).
The film is an ode, an homage to film noir, though it is not strictly a neo-noir and fits more succinctly within the arthouse cinema that Wenders and directors like him were working to develop through the 60s, 70s, and 80s in the New Hollywood Movement and the New German Cinema. This burgeoning cinema was inspired by auteurs of the Hollywood system in the 40s and 50s who created noirs, but it was just as strongly inspired by the French New Wave, Surrealism, the Western, the Thriller, and the film forms that helped to spawn film noir in the first place like Expressionism, Exploitation, and Poetic Realism. As a sort of constant reminder of Wender’s influences and contemporaries, he decided to cast them, mostly directors in their own rights, as the mobsters in his film.
Influences included the casting of the film noir auteurs and Hollywood pariahs: Samuel Fuller (as Pogash, a forger of paintings by a deceased fictional artist named Derwatt) and Nicholas Ray (as The American: a mob figure representing the American syndicate), each of whom had in his own way contributed greatly to the grammar of film noir. The former left Hollywood during the blacklists and later had a long and esteemed career in French cinema as a director and a darling of the Cahiers writers and the French New Wave, which later emerged from that critical movement. The latter was cast out of Hollywood due to his unstoppable substance abuse and his perceived lack of interest in the commercial appeal of his films, which obviously irked his producers.
Contemporaries included the French directors Gerard Blain (as Raoul Minot, a sympathetic crime boss) and the great Jean Eustache (as a Friendly Man within the syndicate) who helped move French cinema beyond the New Wave during his short, but impactful career. Swiss director Daniel Schmid (Igraham) and British director Sandy Whitelaw (a Doctor in league with the mob) round out the European contemporary crowd along with Wender’s New German Cinema counterpart Peter Lilienthal (as Marcangelo).
Finally, to fully round out the class of mobsters for the film, Wenders needed to find his Ripley. He first broached the idea of playing the role to American independent filmmaker John Cassavettes (whose work was influential on the French New Wave, on the very concept of Independent filmmaking, and on auteur filmmaking throughout the world). But as Cassavettes was busy making a film at the time, he told Wenders to consider casting Dennis Hopper instead. Hopper, one of the visionaries and first big voices of the New Hollywood cinema of America, was just coming off of work Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now (one of at least three including The Godfather and The Godfather II). During that film he had immersed himself so deeply into his character using stimulants and hallucinogenics that he had to go through a short stint in rehab before he could even act again for The American Friend.
Besides directors, the few remaining roles were cast with Wenders regulars, as well as an American Folk Singer named David Blue (in the role of a Texan man who buys one of the forgeries by Pogash) and the second principal character of Jonathan Zimmerman, which was played by Bruno Ganz, a veritable force to be reckoned with within German, and European, cinema for the next thirty years. But at this time, Ganz was known solely as a theater actor of great force. Wenders admired him and had seen his few teleplays and the one film adaptation of a play he had performed in for an Eric Rohmer film, as well as dozens of his performances on the stage, and decided that he would be perfect for the role. Ultimately, he would become the face of Wenders’ cinema in much of the same manner that Klaus Kinski had for Wenders’ contemporary Werner Herzog.
The film tells the story of Jonathan Zimmerman, a restoration artist and framer of paintings and photographs, who slights Tom Ripley at an auction by refusing to shake his hand (knowing that Ripley is a fraud and a cheat of forgery racket ilk). Zimmerman is dying of a rare blood disease and is unsure of how long he has left to live. This makes him into a sometimes ornery fellow, which doubly explains his initial irritation with Ripley, though he will later apologize to him for his rude behavior and the two will become friends. But this friendship begins all too late as Ripley punishes the Zimmerman for his earlier slight. Ripley is offered a hit job on two men in the mafia, which he turns down and decides to recommend Zimmerman for. He spreads rumors that Zimmerman has not much longer to live and that his condition has reached the terminal stages, which means he could use the money from the wet jobs to support his family after he is gone. The news spreads quickly and even has Zimmerman wondering whether he is actually dying and just hasn’t been alerted by his doctors. He begins to reflect on life and death more seriously and eventually comes to the decision to take on the job.
After the first assassination, which is done pretty sloppily and would probably leave Zimmerman open to police suspicions, if the man he killed wasn’t a low-life mobster that the cops didn’t care about, Ripley finds out that Zimmerman took the job. He has become friends with Zimmerman and formed a bond of sorts, and as such, on Zimmerman’s subsequent hits, Ripley tags along to help out (he does this also because he feels responsible for Zimmerman’s current predicament). His aid proves indispensable as the next event is complicated by multiple bodyguards constantly watching and protecting the target. But they pull it off. As the murders commence and the job looks finished, somehow news of the identity of the man who ordered the hits, Raoul Minot, gets out to the remaining mafia bosses and Minot becomes a target. Ripley and Zimmerman, who previously imagined that they were through with the whole matter, must now scheme to protect their boss, and by proxy themselves. Because if he goes, they’re next in line as the assassins who actually carried out the hits.
The film is at times very organic and fluid like the handheld camera style of the French New Wave and the New Hollywood movements, at other times the stylization of the piece is more expressionistic and traditionally noir, veritably oozing with mise-en-scene. Sometimes the acting of Ganz reaches a fever pitch of traditional dramatic acting and pathos, and at other moments, like the glorious sequence at the end of the film as Zimmerman and Ripley drive along a secluded beach to burn the bodies of their victims, the sky and the reflective sand are nearly indiscernible and it appears as if the cars are floating across a landscape of waves and clouds. This mode is an ethereal vision of cinema, which is part of arthouse style Wenders helped to develop. This sequence probably comes closest to pure cinema and cinema as painting and sculpting time than anything this side of Tarkovsky and Bergman, and is a style that would return to greatest effect in Wender’s classic arthouse film Wings of Desire.
Much of the experimentation and mixing of styles on the film came from the various inspirations of the directors casted as actors in the film. The greatest direct influences came from oft-time shot and approach advice by Samuel Fuller and the inspiration of Dennis Hopper who pushed Wim Wenders to greater and greater experiments and incorporation of ideas and happy accidents into the finished work. But none of it could have been captured in the manner it was without Wenders’ cinematographer Robby Muller with whom he had worked with as early as 1970 on Summer in the City, would continue to work alongside until 1995 on Beyond the Clouds, and who provided wonderful work especially on this film, and on Paris, Texas years later. Muller would also collaborate with American director Jim Jarmusch on five films between 1986 and 2003 including his classic Mystery Train, with Lars Von Trier on Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, as well as with numerous other directors both in Europe and in America on independent and large studio productions. But The American Friend is Muller at top form (he even developed the use of fluorescent lighting for films on this work): a level he would astonishingly reach many more times throughout his career as a cinematographer who can safely be ranked amongst the top 50 cameramen of all time.