"The American Friend," now at the Inner Circle, provides an intriguing introduction to the young German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who appears to justify some of the enthusiasm more often lavished on his slightly older compatriots, the insufferable Rainer Werner Fassbinder and marginally sufferable Werner Herzog.
In "The American Friend," an adaptaton of Patricia Highsmith's smith's 1974 mystery thriller "Ripley's Game," Wenders combines a flair for imagery and atmosphere with an affinity for genre filmmaking and popular culture (especially American pop culture) that could carry him beyond cult recognition eventually.
An absorbing but rarefied, introspective variation on traditional thrilleer motifs, it's probably not the synthetis between the personal and traditional that Wenders needs but it's a fascinating compulsively watchable experiment.
Highsmith's books have attracted superior filmmakers, and all have produced something distinctive and interesting out of her recurring situation of the tangled relationship between a clever, manipulative criminal and his basically decent yet susceptible prey.
Her first novel, "Strangers on a Train," was the source for one of Alfred Hitchcock's best thrillers, in which Robert Walker gave his most enjoyable performance. "The Talenter Mr. Ripley" was transformed by Rene Clement into a striking, perverse star vehicle for the young Alain Delon called "Purple Noon."
Now we have the Wenders version of "Riley's Game," in which Dennis Hopper brings a haggard, disheveled aura of dissipation to the role of the manipulator, previously embodied by Walker and Delon, while the German actor Bruno Ganz brings a surprisingly appealing aura of melancholy and desperation to the role of the manipulated, previously embodied by Farley Granger and Maurice Ronet.
Hopper's Ripley, the American middleman in an art fraud scheme, feels slighted when Ganz's Jonathan Zimmerman, a Hamburg craftsman who makes picture frames and restores paintings, declines to shake his hand when they've introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Learning that Zimmermann, a family man, has a rare blood disease, Ripley recommends him for an assassin's job needed by a French crook named Minot, played by Gerard Blain, perhaps best remembered as the native country cousin to Jean Claude Brialy in Claude Chabrol's "The Cousins."
Zimmermann's anxiety about his health and the welfare of his wife and son causes him to acquiesce to Minot's offer of blood money. In a feverish, exhausted state following a medical exam in Paris arranged by Minot, Zimmermann shadows a man through the Metro, shoots him and escapes without a trace.
The story is meant to ramify in several ironic and revealing ways at this juncture. Perhaps it did in the original novel, but the movie, held together emotionally by one's identification with the plight Zimmermann, isn't quite prepared to make a jump to a now altered Zimmermann and now remorseful Ripley becoming soulmates.
Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper make an undeniably odd couple, but the oddness isn't metaphorically productive. An exceptional sufferer and victim, Ganz fails to suggest the criminal yearnings supposedly released by Zimmermann's belated participation in crime.
"The American Friend" lacks the humor and crackle one associates with the best American and British film thrillers.Despite his American influences and his stylistic sophistication, Wenders retains a morose streak that is bound to seem burdensomely Germanic to many viewers. Nevertheless, this movie reveals an original, insinuating talent from the outset, and it may exert a special fascination upon constant moviegoers. You feel as if a major talent is taking shape in "The American Friend."
Wenders' skills are overbalanced on the stylistic side. His ominously expressive mastery of compositions and settings isn't matched by equally intelligent casting and storytelling. The problems are aggravated by his choice of and inordinately tricky mystery story to tell. Still, the look and mood or the film continue to impose themselves powerfully even after the exposition begins backtracking and drifting. Wenders uses color like an abstract expressionist designers, creating a mood of sustained visual tension and foreshadowing that seems simultaneously creepy and seductive.
This story about a framemaker in a frame-up is punctuated by images that emphasize the idea of being framed or boxing oneself in. Wenders carries out this visual scheme with such assurance that you never question its obviousness.On the contrary, the imagery tends to induce moods and create expectations that the narrative can't quite support.
Wenders needs a mystery story as compressed and concentrated as his streamlined for apprehensive and explosive effects. Wenders doesn't have his act totally together, but he's getting there, and in some respects it's already a brilliant act.