The American Friend

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Ever since Alfred Hitchcock adapted Strangers on a Train in 1951, the novels and short stories of Patricia Highsmith have been hotly pursued by film-makers. They have a plot, thrills, seedy glamour, black humour and the suggestion of transgressive sex, any element of which can be dialled up and down. As I write there have been approaching 40 film and TV adaptations, quite a few of which are famous – Hitchcock’s, of course, Plein Soleil (starring Alain Delon), Carol (Cate Blanchett) and The Talented Mr Ripley (Matt Damon and Jude Law).

The American Friend (aka Der amerikanishe Freund) not so much. In the mid 1970s director Wim Wenders had plans to do a Highsmith adaptation of his own but found that the rights to all her published works had already been sold. Stymied, he turned to Highsmith herself, who had a book in the works, Ripley’s Game, and persuaded her to let him have it.

She hated the screen version of what became The American Friend, but changed her opinion completely on seeing it a second time. It is that sort of film, to be fair to Highsmith, low on plot (it’s hard to work out what’s really going on) but high on atmosphere, a neo-noir that’s not too bothered with details but goes all in on mood.

The summaries all declare that Dennis Hopper is the star. Fresh (if that’s the right word) and fierce from Apocalypse Now, he plays Highsmith’s anti-hero Ripley after all. But the film is dominated by Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Zimmermann, a Hamburg-based picture restorer and frame-maker who is recruited to become a hitman by a shadowy figure called Raoul Minot.

Ripley might or might not have tipped off Minot that Zimmermann is mortally ill and so will need money to provide for his family after his death. The only wrinkle here being that Zimmermann doesn’t believe he is dying, and nor does his doctor. In fact much of the film consists of Zimmermann going to doctors to get the exact status of his health confirmed. It’s all a bit confusing.

Not only that. Why would a professional criminal hire a humble frame-maker to carry out a hit in the first place? Why, when hiring him, is Minot so imprecise about the number of people he wants killing? “One or two”, Minot says. That “or” is doing a lot of work there, especially if you’re the amateur who is potentially going to do the job.

Who is Minot anyway? His character is entirely in keeping with almost everything else in the film. Ripley himself is a mystery. Almost a supernatural presence, he inhabits a massive white house that seems almost derelict and is friends with a painter called Derwatt, who is billed as “Derwatt”, in scare quotes, and may not be the painter at all but a forger. Either that or he is the real Derwatt but is pretending to be dead, for reasons never explained. Also popping up on the margin is someone referred to as Der Amerikaner, a cigar-smoking old-school gangster with henchmen, a badass tight-lipped attitude and all the trimmings.

There are a lot of directors on screen in this movie – Hopper, Nicholas Ray (Derwatt), Sam Fuller (the cigar-chomping Amerikaner), Gérard Blain (Minot) in bad guy roles, plus Jean Eustache, Peter Lilienthal, Daniel Schmid, Sandy Whitelaw and Wenders himself (a cameo as the guy in bandages at the end).

It’s either a homage by Wenders to people he rates, or a little joke, or perhaps a reinforcement of the notion of slippery reality – directors, after all, spend their lives massaging it.

Bruno Ganz with a gun
Zimmermann embraces his new hitman status

So, not much happens, at least for the first half of the film, when Ripley is largely absent and Zimmermann is being lined up for the job. When his first hit eventually comes along, Wenders does it in extraordinary detail, Zimmermann following his target on the Paris Metro, waiting for the ideal moment to shoot. Wenders wants to impress on his audience that killing someone in broad daylight, when you have never done it before, is not easy.

Later, when Zimmermann is on job number two, set entirely on board a train, Ripley suddenly returns to the scene, almost as if invoked by prayer. At the same time Wenders ramps up the thrills, and the existential and abstract suddenly gives way to the practical and thrilling, as if to prove that Alfred Hitchcock isn’t the only one who can do this sort of thing.

Really, it’s all about the look, with Wenders using versatile DP Robby Müller’s extraordinary eye for colour to the max. Müller shot Repo Man and Dead Man and Breaking the Waves for Alex Cox, Jim Jarmusch and Lars Von Trier respectively, and tends to work at the arthouse end of cineplex, but the look here is like none of those – here Müller is always juxtaposing warm and cool lighting, to point up that something isn’t quite as it should be. (Apparently he had a lot of trouble with the processing lab “correcting” his colours).

Meanwhile, Jürgen Knieper’s soundtrack is noirish in the extreme, real old-school 1940s noir, all trembling strings and hooting bass woodwind, foreshadowing Zimmermann’s conversion from simple framer into hitman. If this is a story about anything it’s about a diffident guy trying on the hitman style and finding he likes it.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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