There have been a few cinematic adaptations of famed author Patricia Highsmith's stories, such as 1951's Strangers on a Train, and 2002's Ripley's Game, but director Wim Wenders' 1977 acclaimed thriller, The American Friend, stands above the pack. It is one of Wenders' more accessible and entertaining films, in which the narrative flows with uncommon grace and suspense. It also contains one of iconic actor Bruno Ganz's best performances, where he inhabits every since he's in.
In the film, Ganz portrays Jonathan Zinnermann, a terminally ill German everyman who gets involved in an elaborate murder plot concocted by the quirky and enigmatic Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), in order to leave his wife and son with an inheritance after his death. At first, he doesn't want to compromise his morals and values because he is no killer, but as he continues closer to death, he figures that there is no way out, and he uneasily accepts. During the ever-deepening scheme, they both develop an unlikely friendship, which is eventually compromised when the plan goes sour.
With his fantastic eye for detail and character, Wenders draws the viewer into an emotional frenzy as he extends Jonathan's predicament to a somber close. We feel deeply for this character and care about him every step of the way. We also dread his every move as he allows himself and his conscience to be further manipulated by Ripley's snarky compositions, where Hopper brilliantly teeters on the edge, to the point where you don't know what he is really thinking, or who he really is. I think this is essence of acting, where two brilliant actors disappear into their roles and run away with them. There is a seamless mixture of American and European flavor, in which some scenes were shot in New York, and the majority of the film shot in Hamburg, Germany. In this case, you get the sense of dislocation that increases the intensity of the plot.
Some of my favorite moments include Jonathan's first murder of a rival gangster in an airport escalator, the murder of another gangster on a train where he and Tom kill him and throw him off while the train is moving, and the ending where Jonathan's story is concluded. These moments are almost done in silent fashion, in order to keep the suspense going and the viewer on the edge, where things can suddenly take a hard left turn. From this, it is clear that Wenders had been deeply influenced by the bygone era of 1940s film noir when he made this film. You're also treated to cameos by legendary filmmakers Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, and Jean Eustache, which is the icing on the cinematic cake.
As usual, Criterion does the most upstanding job restoring the film to its original glory, providing it with limited but worthwhile supplements: the original and very informative 2002 commentary with Wenders and Hopper; over 30 minutes of deleted scenes with commentary by Wenders; two separate, but enlightening new interviews with Wenders and Ganz; and lastly, the theatrical trailer. There is also a new essay by author Francine Prose.
I am so glad that this was given the Criterion treatment, because it needed new life on DVD and Blu-ray, and it is also a tense blend of suspense and character study that manages to expertly lead the viewer on a thrilling experience, while also keeping itself grounded with sheer maturity. Kudos, Wenders!