Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Short Take: The American Friend

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The scenes of The American Friend, German director Wim Wenders’ 1977 adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel Ripley’s Game, almost always take place at either dusk or dawn. It’s a fine visual analogue for the predicaments of the main character (Bruno Ganz), a hapless German family man whom gangsters recruit as an assassin. Wracked by conscience no matter what he does, he’s caught in the tension between the light of good and the darkness of evil. Wenders, working with the outstanding cinematographer Robby Müller, is ingenious when it comes to such poetic visual glosses on the story. He and Müller also make terrific use of the film’s locations--including Hamburg, Paris, and Manhattan--which are strikingly atmospheric without ever seeming glamorous. What Wenders doesn’t have is a feel for the melodramatic suspense necessary for good pulp storytelling. The film is absorbing, and the strong performance by Ganz catches one up in his character, but it’s ultimately a thriller without thrills. If one is looking for an exciting narrative, one is far better served by Highsmith’s novel. Dennis Hopper co-stars as Ripley, the shady American art dealer who manipulates the Ganz character into murder. One has mixed feelings about his portrayal. Highsmith’s character is a clean-cut, charming sociopath with a taste for the good life. The film’s Ripley is a creepy, uncouth looney-tune. The characterization isn’t at odds with Wenders’ conception of the story, and one is grateful that Hopper shows some restraint. The performance is a good deal removed from the psycho schtick he devolved into later in his career. But the amoral enjoyment to be had from Highsmith’s character isn’t to be found. Lisa Kreuzer plays the Ganz character’s fretful wife. Several directors appear in supporting roles, including Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, and Gérard Blain.

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