Framed: Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper in The American Friend.

The duplicitous Tom Ripley—forger, murderer, identity thief—has been portrayed on film by actors as various as John Malkovich, Alain Delon, and Matt Damon.  As played by Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), Ripley is a menacing hipster in a cowboy hat who, seemingly on a whim, decides to make an enemy of Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), a German frame designer.  And with an enemy like Ripley, who needs friends?  Ripley and Zimmerman become locked in the kind of half-hostile, half-tender relationship that one so often finds in Patricia Highsmith, the creator of the Ripley novels (in addition to Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt, recently adapted as Carol).  The homoeroticism that Anthony Minghella makes overt in his own adaptation The Talented Mr. Ripley is more muted in Wenders’ film, adding a quiet and unsettling tension to Zimmerman’s interactions with Ripley.  As he works to subtly destroy Zimmerman’s life, then finds himself moved to protect him from even more dangerous adversaries, it’s difficult to know whether Ripley wants to be Zimmerman’s friend, lover, killer, or all three. 

The American Friend rides on the slow burn of the two men’s relationship, which is made all the more unusual by their opposite personalities: Ripley an affable monster with a chilling laugh, Zimmerman a mild-mannered family man who fears he is dying of a blood disease.  Theirs is only one of a series of German-American romances going on in the film, which is a kind of love letter from Wenders to Hollywood genre cinema—noir thrillers as well as Westerns.  Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller both appear in the film in cameo roles; the appearance of Ray reminds us that Hopper got his start as an actor in Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955).  When, in the final shot, Ray is seen looking off into the distance before walking away from the camera, it almost feels as if all of The American Friend has been a daydream for a film of his own, never made.

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