Before the film even begins, the title of The American Friend is deeply fascinating. Wim Wenders adapted Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game for the film, and both the book and the billing order suggest Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley is the protagonist (Yes, that Tom Ripley). Introducing him as a friend predicates his existence on dependence. When “American” is appended, a whole swathe of political, allegorical readings materialize from the text. The protagonist with whom we empathize, who lives and acts with stakes, is painting framer Johnathan Zimmerman. Bruno Ganz’s Johnathan is a working German man with a family and leukemia, wielding enough integrity to earn Tom’s insecure wrath. “I’ve heard of you.” is his dismissive reply to Ripley’s attempted handshake, and the catalyst for a plot in which he is less of a game piece than a spinning top. The change in title at once is ironic, defines a shifting relationship of dependence, and rejects the prospect that any character could ever be in control.
Zimmerman’s craftsmanship, his eye, and his self-reliance impress Ripley, who, as Johnathan later coaxes out of him, doesn’t really make anything but money. Tom Ripley the smooth talking, classy psychopath is nowhere to be found, instead replaced by a leech of a man who despises himself the more he thinks about himself, and can barely think of anything else. Hopper dons a cowboy hat and appears to be driven by competing senses of self hatred and inertia. His Ripley is neurotic, strung out fulfilling the back ends of favors. He wants to make something with his hands, he tells Johnathan while seated in his workshop, but instead he retreats to a mansion decorated with Canada Dry light fixtures and Coca-Cola fridges. The self-aware nature of Ripley’s exploitation is especially terrible. He forms an affection for Johnathan based on jealousy and a trinket he gifts him. Later in the film Ripley returns the favor with the corrupting nature his character can not help but permeate, giving Johnathan a one-eyed reel viewer hiding pornography. Ripley lures Johnathan into this underworld of assassination, allows him to believe rumors that his illness is getting worse despite his doctor’s claims, but is able to remain triumphant in the end, believing this manipulation to be intimacy because it was successful.
The excitement of this world is distracting and addictive to Johnathan as well, most plainly and powerfully displayed in the first murder scene. Johnathan loosely tails his target, falling asleep on the train and letting his gun show through his pocket. He’s told not to run afterwards, to reduce the action to being paid for a service. This capitalist exterior coats a much more frightening core of dread and introspection. Ripley’s opportunism and self loathing define him as the new, conscious, capitalist floater. The cowboy he attempts to masquerade as has been replaced by a man controlled by a cycle of mental collapses and objective victories. The individuality the American way grants is treated as a disgusting, basic impulse that surrenders stability and integrity to instincts and cruel coincidence. Johnathan shoots his assignment as he goes up the escalator, and runs down the escalator in an exhilaration that ignores logic. Under the freeway after the job, he walks with a suitcase at his side, and the usually subdued Johnathan smiles wide with primal satisfaction.
The film is a true neo-noir, channeling (and guest-starring) Nicholas Ray’s existential fear from the noir framework. Robbie Muller’s cinematography is beyond description. His use of color and shadow and his ability to capture the fleeting nature of detachment and intimacy create a tragedy of interpersonal consequences for animalistic actions. Simultaneously, these detached shots are fantastical, aggrandizing, and beautiful. The descent is unstoppable once it’s begun, and even as his wife tries to drag him out of his life, he has been injected with internal conflict that cannot be stopped. The American influence is just as frustratingly exciting to the audience as to Johnathan, beautifully demonstrated in the scene following Johnathan’s second assassination and Tom’s guilt-wracked confession of setting the events in motion: Johnathan sits in his shop listening to The Kinks as his wife enters with a check – his compensation – asking with a very German efficiency about the source. The camera does not move. He answers that the doctors in Paris and Munich had made a bet on his life, a bet in which he stands to win nothing. But in The American Friend, self awareness is not enough, self control is impossible, and after watching her leave with his son, in the next shot he is sweeping the floor, listening to The Kinks, but this time singing along.