Filmmakers have been drawn to writer, Patricia Highsmith’s stories ever since the publication of Strangers on a Train in 1950. Wielding a poison pen, Highsmith brought murder, violence and murderous minds out into icy daylight elevating the pulpy potboiler genre to levels of literary excellence. Her books, with their crisp, taut dialogue and cinematic descriptions lend themselves handily to film treatment.
German film great Wim Wenders was a longtime admirer of Highsmith’s work and wanted to film either The Tremor of Forgery or The Cry of the Owl but discovered that the rights to both were unavailable as were the rights to all of the author’s books. Highsmith learned of Wender’s interest and disappointment and offered him the unpublished manuscript of Ripley’s Game. Wenders did not warm to that title and originally began shooting his film under the title, Framed. It was star, Dennis Hopper’s idea to re-name the project, THE AMERICAN FRIEND. Wenders cast well-known film directors – Gerard Blain, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, in gangster roles and teamed Hopper up with Bruno Ganz who had made an international splash with the provocative THE MARQUISE OF O.
Before anything else, Wenders always chooses the music he will use to underscore his pictures and here the soundtrack is as much a character in THE AMERICAN FRIEND as are the characters themselves: as Tom Ripley, Dennis Hopper quotes “The Ballad of Easy Rider”, from his own ’60s cult classic, EASY RIDER, Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Pity the Poor Immigrant” set the mood for us. Bruno Ganz’s character, Jonathan Zimmerman, is a fan of The Kinks, so a lot of The Kinks lyrics are quoted and sung to evoke a noir ambience.
Richly-etched characters, realistic human relationships, gripping action sequences, a sly (wry) humor give a spunky feel to the goings-on which (at first at least) involve Ripley’s business of selling art forgeries on the black market but which ultimately lead to much more sinister involvements.
We are drawn to noirs for plot but also for atmosphere and the city of Hamburg is the perfect place to play out these dramas – the light there is a surprise, the dark corners of alleyways and wet cobblestones darker than any you can think of – a gritty, squirmy, quirky city of spaces, sputters, hesitations, sudden reversals of energy much like Hopper’s own on-screen energy. Lonely buildings with no other buildings around them isolate us; edifices are either windowless or clearly contain no inhabitants or, if they do, they are, like Ripley, planning criminal activities, crooked deals. The story bristles with existential, eccentric performances, poison orations, flows with poetry and poetic equivocations (you can see these characters thinking), – what begins as brief, little forgeries soon morphs into sociopathy and murder.
Hopper is so watchable here; his cowboy hat signals what? An outlaw, a Western anti-hero, a SHANE riding the international forgery range. As he, himself, asks, “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” The interspersing of foreign languages – English, German, French – lends the story a multinational charm. Charm is key here. The people, however sociopathic, whatever wayward paths they have put themselves on, are human, display warmth, are likable, and if you have ever in your travels come across criminals, murderers, rapists, thieves (as I have), you know they can be among the most charming folks you will ever meet for charisma and likability are prime assets for getting away with mischief.
But to return to the glories of Hamburg that make this film so tantalizing – Wenders makes of the city a desert – as lonely as Highsmith makes her characters; a ghostly, radioactive green suffuses a great many scenes, a post-apocalyptic green indicating the isolation of its occupants and strangers, a light made to spook us, along with silvery shadows, rigs and derricks on a dirty, dark river, one bare, lonesome light bulb in a multi-windowed building, a sleeping child who is not really asleep – all work to disconcert us, put us where Wenders wants us – on edge.
Silences here are as important as conversations. The sudden silences betray sharp, deliberate threats. They scare us without even trying hard. Lonely roads and dead ends speak to the ordinariness of violence, how just prior to pulling a trigger or a knife, a character is drinking tea, making a sandwich, counting cash. In Highsmith’s world, death can be as banal as breakfast. Wenders knows this and presents the ironies of crime beautifully – a few times characters frame themselves with actual picture frames – they know they have already hanged themselves with their actions.
Wenders choice of mise-en-scene couldn’t be more apt, their ugliness matched only by their beauty. They mirror the polarity of human behavior. For example, Ganz agrees to commit a crime but only so the money he earns can help him pay for the costly medical treatments he needs or help his wife and child should he succumb to his illness. We feel for him.
Even background talent in the movie appear to have a menace about them – a passenger and his dog could be malevolent or they could be a mere passenger and his mere dog on a train. Two shady men in a club car corridor could be the epitome of mischief or they could be Parisian fashion designers discussing their upcoming exhibit. It is this not-knowing infusing the film that throws us off-balance, compels us to watch and wonder, to bite our nails in suspense. We ask ourselves over and over, shake our heads in disgust and dismay at the terrible acts these characters are committing yet if we see ourselves as not being as ruthless and cavalier as they, why then do we root for Ganz and Hopper to get away with the train killing when it is interrupted by the sudden, repeated appearances of other passengers? Why do we want them to get away with murder? This is Highsmith’s question; at her best she posed the eternal query – why are good people also bad? How can good and evil exist within the same vessel? The extraordinary versus the ordinary – how is it a man who has just strangled a man to death can, in the next second, be downing a bottle of milk, or sweeping a floor? The film is full of these contradictions – Ganz running silently down a tunnel into a void, fiddling nervously with his wedding ring as he wrestles his conscience for an excuse as to why he has chosen to take another life, Hopper blowing softly and seductively in hushed wonder on gold shavings in the palm of his hand, a child’s stereopticon revealing a silent leap frog game, symbolic of the domination each character wishes to have over another.
Even when no one hurts someone else, you feel they are about to, so taut and claustrophobic is Wenders’ camera. The train and train station scenes are thrilling. Jump cuts are made in all the right places. The carousel music lulls you into a sense of false ease. The cafe scene, following the crime, has an Edward Hopper-like look, The bandage scene adds a surreal kindness – Ganz has just killed someone yet a stranger is tending to his wound.
There are terrific performances here. Dennis Hopper made a career out of menace. A very tiny man (5′ 3″), he was able to transmit screen danger through the use of quick, strange, sudden hand and limb movements and via those penetrating eyes so overflowing with anger and madness that you die when he aims them at you. In one of my favorite scenes in a pool hall, backed by a large CANADA DRY GINGER ALE sign, Hopper, bathed in a sickly, alien fluorescence, lies back on the pool table and takes one Instamatic Polaroid shot of himself after another until he is covered in them – a hallmark of movie narcissism, a photographic ode to the triumph of evil over good. I love how the film is generously illustrated with symbols of American culture: the CANADA DRY sign, packs of Marlboros, Doublemint gum, coffee, hotdogs, hamburgers, Burma Shave, Ripley is bringing Crime American Style to an innocent, unsuspecting Europe.
Bruno Ganz, “the great, brooding loner of Modernist Cinema”, in THE AMERICAN FRIEND cemented his reputation for portraying complex characters, saying little in order to say a great deal. Watch him suffer quietly as the choices he has made take him to darker and darker places and then finally transform and deliver him from guilt and sin to a twisted epiphany of acceptance and grace. And it’s great seeing Samuel Fuller, as gangster-ish as any of the crooks and gumshoes in his own movies. The real McCoy.
Without a doubt, Wim Wenders and company have fashioned one of the most compelling, exciting, unique noirs ever created. I am told THE AMERICAN FRIEND is not too often shown on the big screen. A rare opportunity then for Brattle-goers to see genius at play.