“What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” asks Dennis Hopper at the beginning of the movie, wearing a Stetson like he just entered the wrong picture. For viewers used to the suave, sophisticated Tom Ripley played by Matt Damon and John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper’s version will look like an abomination – unapologetically American, full of American speech mannerisms, slightly crazy and more than once acting like he’s hopped on drugs. But that’s the beauty of the movie, a beauty unique to the ’70s, when American actors collaborated with European filmmakers, when different influences merged to create something unique.
Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, the movie follows Tom Ripley, bon vivant, art dealer and occasional murderer. Enjoying success selling fake pictures of a popular but dead artist, one day he meets a picture-framer, Jonathan (Bruno Ganz), who displeases him. His mistake? To say ‘I’ve heard of you’ in a disdainful manner and refusing to shake hands with Ripley.
Jonathan is dying from a blood disease and has more on his mind than social niceties. He has medical bills to pay and he’s worried about the future of his son and wife (Lisa Kreuzer) after he passes away. So he becomes the perfect person for Ripley to turn into a murderer when a criminal friend (Gérard Blain) asks him to find someone to kill a rival for money. Quickly the movie enters fertile territory that lets Wenders explore questions about personal responsibility, duplicity, and the nature of evil.
Although Tom Ripley usually has the spotlight in his movies, here the main character is Jonathan. Bruno Ganz plays this everyman with compassion for his predicament and also with a feeling of being trapped between accepting his fate and enjoying the freedom to become a murder it grants him. Quite fascinating are the scenes with his family, which become increasingly darker, going from idyllic to nightmarish as his secret life distances him from his wife.
Dennis Hopper gives a great performance too as Jonathan’s amoral friend who plays with his life like a child with putty, manipulating it for no good reason other than personal gratification. Unconcerned with what he has done to him, he only intervenes to help him when Jonathan’s problems become his own. That’s Tom Ripley: elegant and nice on the outside, empty on the inside, collector of art but hardly a sensitive man, owner of a beautiful neoclassic mansion filled with objects wrapped in plastic. Once the movie ends the viewer is left wondering which of the two is the greatest fake.
Although these two actors would make the movie worth watching just for their performances, Wenders nevertheless crafted a tense, suspenseful thriller that stands on its own. Mixing cinematography reminiscent of American noir cinema with the slow pacing of ’70s thrillers, this is mostly a visual experience in which sequences go on for many minutes without words spoken, the action directed by the camera and acting alone.
Sadly there aren’t cowboys in Hamburg anymore. European and American cinema ignore each other, happily proud of their provincialism. But The American Friend stands as a reminder of a time when cinema knew no borders and when artists were more daring.