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Odd, But Intriguing
on 20 September 2013
Two adjectives which I could use to describe much of the work (that I have seen) from German 'New Wave' film-maker Wim Wenders. Here, Wenders uses Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game as the loose basis for this 1977 'thriller' and casts his idiosyncratic spell over the subject. Whilst, for me, The American Friend represents a far from coherently satisfactory whole, it does have its moments, particularly during the first two-thirds of the film, during which its tale of Bruno Ganz's picture-frame maker, Jonathan Zimmermann, cursed with a serious blood disorder, crosses paths with Denis Hopper's shady, criminally-connected Tom Ripley, and is coerced (for money) into undertaking a 'hit' on a mafia-linked target, delivering an atmospheric and generally engaging watch, as Zimmermann's predicament becomes increasingly desperate.
Wenders certainly does not lack ambition for the film, taking in New York (where Ripley sets up deals to sell art forgeries created by Nicholas Ray's Dewatt), Hamburg (where both Ripley and Zimmermann live) and Paris (where Zimmermann is initially commissioned to carry out his hit), and cinematographer Robby Muller's bleak urban landscapes, together with Jurgen Knieper's haunting soundtrack serve to create an impressively atmospheric feel for Wenders' 'updated noir'. Hopper is (mostly) impressive (and stylised) as the brooding, mysterious Ripley, but, for me, it is Ganz (together with his wife, Marianne, played dead straight with wrought emotion by Lisa Kreuzer) who steals the acting honours, playing the increasingly worried and frantic Zimmermann, full of compassion and dread for the future of his wife and young son. Visually, the film also has impressive moments such as Muller's (repeated) depictions of Ganz's 'trapped' character running down tunnels and the amazing scene in which Zimmermann covers his hand with gold-leaf before making an important phone call.
In the end, however, Wenders' film does not, for me, convince. His obscure (not to say, unlikely) plot points, unconvincing character motivations (e.g. Ripley and Zimmermann's 'sudden' friendship) and disjointed narrative are significant drawbacks and have all the hallmarks of 'cult film-making' (a very risky business, in my book). In fact, I did wonder, particularly during the near-farcical last half-hour, as to whether Wenders has his tongue in the vicinity of his cheek, during the over-stylised 'fights on the train sequence' and when he has Ripley quip (both), 'I'm confused' and 'It doesn't make any sense'. Although I'll admit I did laugh (with the characters) when Ripley also quips, 'I'm bringing the Beatles back to Hamburg' and when Zimmermann starts singing the moptops', 'Baby, you can drive my car'. Plus, the film's final twist is unexpected and rather poignant.