by Pauline Kael
Angst-dark primary colors—reds and blues so intense they’re nearpsychedelic, yet grimy, rotting in the thick, muggy atmosphere. Cities that blur into each other. Characters as figures in cityscapes or as exiles in rooms that are insistently not home. And, under it all, morbid, premonitory music. This is the festering mood of the young German writer-director Wim Wenders’s The American Friend, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s crime thriller Ripley’s Game.
An American demi-crook, Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), operating out of Hamburg, suffers a small discourtesy: a Swiss picture restorer and framer, Jonathan (Bruno Ganz), who suspects Ripley of being involved in art forgery, declines to shake his hand. Minot (Gérard Blain), a gangster associate of Ripley’s, needs the services of an assassin, and out of pique—it s no more than a perverse whim—Ripley suggests that Jonathan might be his man. Minot tricks Jonathan, who has a blood disease, into believing that his death is imminent, and proposes that he kill for hire—the target is someone he’s never met—so that he’ll have money to leave to his wife and child. Jonathan’s moral values collapse once he thinks he’s dying; suddenly something in him gives way—as (we fear) it might in any of us. He yields to the momentary temptation, and the trap closes; he’s a criminal. There’s a true thriller moment when this honorable, decent craftsman-shopkeeper carries out his mission. Feverishly, only half consciously, he shoots the victim on an escalator in the Paris Metro and then comes up into the daylight, and it’s like waking from a nightmare—except that we know that now his whole life will be a nightmare.
Highsmith’s thrillers—the sources of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and René Clément’s Purple Noon—aren’t concerned with bringing criminals to justice, and there’s no moral principle or any other standard to separate the normal and the criminal. The symmetrical twist in the plot here is that Ripley develops an affection for Jonathan and tries to extricate him from Minot’s clutches. (Does the title mean that an American friend is one who tries to help you after he’s destroyed you?) Jonathan, who wanted to protect his family’s future, is so changed that he leads a new, dislocated life in which he feels himself a stranger—a tourist who hasn’t got his bearings. His wife barely knows him anymore; Ripley, who understands what is happening to him, replaces his wife as his mate.
Bruno Ganz’s performance as Jonathan is one of the rare ordinary-decent-fellow portrayals that actually succeed (for a while, at least) in involving the viewer. Quiet, a man of inner strength, with watchful, anxious eyes and swansdown diction, Jonathan gives the film its only depth (except for the poignancy of the settings). Ganz doesn’t talk, he croons—and you almost catch yourself leaning toward the screen. You feel you’re reading Jonathan’s soul each time you look at him; you soak into his face the way you soak into the rooms, the streets. If Wenders had written the role so that this patsy had some aggressive impulses that came out in the killing, or if he lost his inner dignity—if he were unpredictable—you could go on soaking into him. But there’s not a lot of variety in Jonathan’s soul. Ganz’s character modulations are in too narrow a range; he’s so inward that you begin to feel he’s looking soulfully out of his deep brown eyes right down at his saintly tradesman’s limp mustache. Jonathan is such a humble, anxious man that the picture needs a counter-force. A stronger Ripley might provide it. But as Dennis Hopper plays him Ripley is nothing but a cowboy hat and a fatigued face and aberrant buoyant flings into the air: Hopper bounds up, arms raised high—the arms that are generally held close in to his slightly rigid body, as if he were chilled.
The psychological union that develops between Ripley and Jonathan—which should be the heart of the movie—is indicated by nothing more than Ripley’s picking up a little kinetic novelty item in Jonathan’s picture-framing shop and Jonathan’s telling him to keep it (a gesture that could signify contempt as easily as generosity). Ripley gives Jonathan a kinetic gadget in return and fastens glassy, sweet-Jesus stares on him, which, by extrapolation, can be interpreted to mean that Ripley is moved by Jonathan’s dedication to his craft. These scenes are particularly awkward because the film’s sound is hollow. The performers speak German or English or French, whichever is appropriate to their characters and the moment, but the sound is poorly recorded and some scenes are inexpertly looped. This technical defect underlines the eccentricity of Hopper’s decaying-juvenile blandness. It takes him an eternity of concentration to perform a minor action, such as pouring coffee into a thermos, and you could drive a truck between the syllables each time he speaks a line of dialogue. Ganz’s accented English is far more fluent than his American friend’s: it’s as if Hopper had just mastered the beginnings of human speech and expected us to share his joy that words come out of his mouth, slowly, but . . . yes . . . they . . . do . . . come . . . out. Even an existential epigram comes out: “I know . . . less and less . . . about who . . . I . . . am . . . and . . . about . . . who . . . anybody . . . else . . . is.” He mutters that into a tape recorder. For posterity. You can’t risk losing thoughts like that. Has the tape been stored in a safe place?
Though Wenders overdoses on mood, he creates the right apprehensiveness for a Highsmith story. But he’s trying to do eighteen other things, too; he “enriches” the plot with incidental speculative themes relating to the oppressiveness of modern society—losing more in clarity than he gains in depth. (It could be argued that he loses more in depth, too.) Jonathan is rootless—an expatriate from Zurich—and the American Ripley, the infant philosopher who talks like the computer in Alphaville, doesn’t really live anywhere; he hops continents (via jump cuts) and camps out in his big house in Hamburg. It features a jukebox and looks like an American Colonial museum of fop Art, so at first you don’t even realize he lives on the same continent as Jonathan. The internationalization of modern cities is another theme: Wenders moves the action from New York to Hamburg, Paris, and Munich, and in each city he shoots the high-rise anonymity that could be anywhere. He finds new’ New Yorks all over Europe, and this certainly makes a point, but in order to make it he deliberately confuses the viewer about where the action is taking place.
All we know about most of the characters in the movie is that they are played by directors. Ripley and Minot are represented by actor-directors (Hopper and Blain), and Nicholas Ray, who directed the young Hopper in Rebel Without a Cause, is cast as a famous painter who has pretended to be dead. He and Hopper have scenes together which, when they become penetrable, seem to relate to the painter’s “forging” new paintings in his old style so they can be sold—a plot embellishment that has nothing whatever to do with Minot and the gangsters Jonathan has got involved with, who belong to porno-filmmaking rings. Other directors who turn up are Samuel Fuller as a Mafia chieftain, Jean Eustache, in a restaurant scene, Daniel Schmid as the man on the escalator, Peter Lilienthal as a hood, and Wenders himself, in an ambulance. This slyboots casting of directors as crooks has a deadening effect; except for Fuller, their acting is perfunctory (and, in the case of Ray, worse, since he tries for a mythic effect). In addition, Jonathans shop and flat contain a magic lantern showing a speeding train, a zoetrope, a stereopticon, a praxinoscope; Jonathan s dedicated craftsmanship is thus linked to moviemaking. Yet none of this film-toy paraphernalia helps to create suspense or to move the action forward; rather, it suggests that though Wenders is attracted to the idea of telling a story he can’t quite keep his mind on it. What about his own pride in craft? The simplest plot points are hobbled, and when there’s mayhem, it isn’t clear who the participants are or what the outcome is. We’re never informed about Ripley’s connection with Minot, which got the whole thing started. There’s a gaping difference between moral ambiguity and this obscurity—which actually impedes the perception of moral ambiguities.
It’s possible for a director to combine suspense narrative and essay, as Godard demonstrated in 1959 in Breathless and in several films in the sixties, doing it quickly, dartingly, in a visual style that could be read at a glance. But Wenders uses densely detailed imagery, his pacing is weighted, and there are no insights that relate to the characters—the film drags along on secondhand alienation. The American Friend doesn’t have the nasty, pleasurable cleverness of a good thriller. Wenders has a moviemaker’s visual imagination, and his unsettling compositions are neurotically beautiful visions of a disordered yet functioning world. Dramatically, though, the entire film is stagnant—inverted Wagnerianism. The unease of the generalized moral degradation overpowers Jonathan’s individual story. Wenders has the style of someone who’s aware of what he’s doing, but that’s not enough—look at Joseph Losev. Wenders is like a more garish, grainier Losey—Losey under mud. Is that why the film is being called a masterpiece? A great many new German films are being called masterpieces. After Vietnam and Watergate, it’s understandable that Americans should begin to wonder if morally we are any different from the Germans, and experience a psychological rapprochement—a new closeness to directors who dredge around in guilt. With nihilism in the air here, the extreme moralism of the Germans may be appealingly exotic. (Moralism could be part of the new attraction of science fiction, too.) American directors may have lost the primitive-visionary qualities that make the new German films so mysterious, but they have an understanding of narrative that the young Germans don’t have. The American Friend is a masterpiece for people who think a movie can’t be worthwhile unless it makes you suffer. Emotionally, the drip drip of Wenders’s poetic urban masochism—which is intended to be antibourgeois filmmaking—is indistinguishable from the heavy-going German films of the Emil Jannings period. Actually, Jannings was a more robust masochist than Bruno Ganz. And Wenders isn’t satisfied by Ganz’s anguish; he also gives Hopper a crackup and a lonely finish. Wenders is not only turgid, he’s exhibitionistically turgid. There’s too much imprecise, darkly lighted desperation in The American Friend. By the time it grinds to a halt, you feel your mind is clouded.
The New Yorker, October 17, 1977