Wednesday, April 13, 2011

With a Friend Like Tom Ripley, Who Needs Enemies?: "The American Friend" (1977)

Patricia Highsmith's psychotic creation, Thomas Ripley, is still in Europe, played by the psychotic Dennis Hopper. Wim Wenders takes a promising basic plot and injects it with "art."

Thomas Ripley was made famous by Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella's watchable "The Talented Mr. Ripley," and about half a dozen other cinematic incarnations. Ripley is now selling paintings by a thought-dead, but very alive artist, smuggling them from New York City to Europe. At one auction, Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) from Hamburg, a lowly picture framer, spots one of the painting's flaws, although it is bought by the rich Allan Winter (David Blue) anyway. Ripley overhears that Jonathan suffers from a blood disease and does not have long to live.

Under Winter's name, Ripley sends a condolence telegram to Jonathan, who has been told by his doctor that he is just fine. Jonathan has a wife, Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer), and a young son, and is concerned for their welfare after he is gone. Frenchman Raoul (Gerard Blain) comes to Jonathan with a proposition. Kill a known gangster in Paris and Jonathan's family will be set for life. Jonathan still does not believe he is dying, but agrees to see a specialist in Paris before agreeing to kill. Raoul gets the report from the hospital, and Jonathan's outlook is not good. Given a gun, Jonathan follows his target around the underground, eventually plugging him in the back. He panics and runs, and his image is captured on security cameras everywhere.

Back in Hamburg, Ripley keeps following Jonathan. Raoul arrives and offers Jonathan yet another hit on a train, but this time Ripley helps in the murder of another mobster and his bodyguard. Raoul is now on the run, Marianne suspects her husband is doing more than seeing specialists, and Jonathan and Ripley hole up in Ripley's chateau and await some very angry mobsters.

Wim Wenders does have a wonderful quirky direction, especially in the two hit sequences. The subway shadowing and the violence of the train hit are brilliantly shot, save some weak effects as Ripley dangles outside a moving passenger car. The problem is that Wenders takes forever to get things going, and when they do, they are not very interesting.

Hopper is an inspired choice as Ripley, the viewer is never sure of his motives, just that he is enjoying all the attention. Bruno Ganz is great as the rather dumb Jonathan, when he gets the medical report from Raoul instead of the hospital, you just know someone is hiding something. It is also unknown why Jonathan is asked to do a second hit, his image on the security cameras during the first hit never pans out with any sort of manhunt or investigation.

Also, the forging painter, Jonathan's doctor, and one of the mobsters all have a shock of white hair and look exactly alike. This only adds to the constant confusion that permeates the plot. The fact that the focus is on Jonathan, instead of Ripley, leads to some very boring scenes and obvious metaphorical scenes (Jonathan puts a frame around his neck, indicating to everyone he is being "framed," his illness and his killing get worse as the film goes on).

This film has been remade as "Ripley's Game" (the original novel's title), with John Malkovich as Ripley. The preview for that film makes more sense than this ponderous adaptation. (* *) out of five stars.