Wim Wenders pays loving homage to rough-and-tumble Hollywood film noir with The American Friend, a loose adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novelRipley’s Game. Dennis Hopper oozes quirky menace as an amoral American art dealer who entangles a terminally ill German everyman, played by Bruno Ganz, in a seedy criminal underworld as revenge for a personal slight—but when the two become embroiled in an ever-deepening murder plot, they form an unlikely bond. Filmed on location in Hamburg and Paris, with some scenes shot in grimy, late-seventies New York City, Wenders’s international breakout is a stripped-down crime story that mixes West German and American film flavors, and it features cameos by filmmakers Jean Eustache, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray.
Patricia Highsmith is an author whose work has frequently been adapted to other mediums. 'Strangers on a Train', her debut novel, might be better known as director Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film of the same name. Her second novel, the lesbian love story 'The Price of Salt', was attributed to an alias because of its subject matter until 1990 and was adapted into 'Carol' in 2015 by director Todd Haynes. Her most notable creation is the character of Tom Ripley, who appeared in five novels between 1955 and 1991. His first appearance, 'The Talented Mr. Ripley,' became 'Purple Noon' (1960) starring Alain Delon as Ripley.
Director Wim Wenders joined the ranks of the New German Cinema in 1970. In the supplemental features, he tells of approaching Highsmith with the desire to adapt one of her novels. Unfortunately, he found many had the same idea, as the rights to everything he requested were unavailable. Luckily, he made a good impression on her during their interactions, and she offered him the rights to the unpublished 'Ripley's Game', the third in the series, which he proceeded to make after his 'Road Movie Trilogy' (set to be released by the Criterion Collection in May).
Titled 'The American Friend', Dennis Hopper stars as Ripley in the character's second screen appearance. Ripley is working in West Germany as an art dealer, artificially driving up the price of his products. In addition, picture framer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) thinks Ripley is passing off fake paintings. When they are introduced, the principled Zimmermann refuses to shakes hands, which insults Ripley, a matter he doesn’t take lightly.
Zimmermann suffers from a blood disease and Ripley decides to use this information, but things spiral out of control. Raoul Minot (Gerard Blain), an associate of Ripley's looking to hire a hitman. Ripley sends Minot to Zimmermann, who initially refuses, but fears of dying and leaving his family nothing change Zimmermann's mind. Wenders creates a marvelous sequence as Zimmerman tracks his victim. Things don't run smoothly for the first-time assassin and the lack of dialogue augments the tension. The story is further complicated when Minot offers Zimmerman a second job. Ripley doesn't want him to do it because of the danger, but the money promised to his family is too good, so he gives into temptation.
Although 'The American Friend' is a small film in scope, the talents of those involved make it a standout. Hopper doesn't make Ripley as slick as the character has appeared elsewhere but the amorality is effortless. Ganz' portrayal makes Zimmermann sympathetic even when he behaves in dastardly ways towards bad men. Wenders' script has great plot twists that keep the viewer engaged and on edge because once events are set in motion the outcome is uncertain. Wenders in conjunction with frequent cinematographer Robby Müller have created an impressive neo-noir.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The American Friend' (#793 in The Criterion Collection) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a folded leaflet containing "Little Lies and Big Disasters," an essay by Francine Prose.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.66:1. "Supervised by director Wim Wenders and produced by the Wim Wenders Stiftung: A Foundation with support from the German Federal Film Board (FFA) for the digitization of content, this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the original 35 mm camera negative at ARRI Film & TV Services in Berlin, where the film was also restored," according to the liner notes.
The colors come through in bold hues. Ripley's bedroom is awash in vivid reds from the sheets and drapes. Bright paint colors on building appears in the same frame as dark, gray cement building, demonstrating how great the contrast is. Whites are accurate, blacks are rich, and shadow delineation is good.
The video delivers a sharp image with fine detail. The texture of the cobblestone streets stands out and doesn't suffer aliasing. There's also great depth on display as seen in the establishing shots of city exteriors. There's a natural amount of film grain and the image looks clean, free of any dirt, damage, or artifacting.
"The original monaural soundtrack was remixed in 5.1 surround from the original tapes by the Wim Wenders Stiftung: A Foundation and approved by the director." The dialogue, which comes in English, French, and German, all sounds intelligible and is focused in the front channels.
Jürgen Knieper's score fills the surrounds, which allows it to add to the ominous feeling during particular scenes. The bass comes through with solid support of the music and effects Ambient effects can be heard during the more active scenes. Other than the music being a little louder than the dialogue in first scene between Ripley and Hogarth, the mix is well balanced.
Wenders blended his New German Cinema sensibilties with film noir to create the intriguing crime thriller 'The American Friend'. Criterion has delivered a pleasing HD experience and has presented features both old and new to allow the makers to expound on its creation. It's worth checking out.