Thursday, March 10, 2011

Random Film Review: The American Friend

Dir: Wim Wenders | Germany | 1977 | 127mins

“What's wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?”
– Dennis Hopper in The American Friend

Like the character Robinson (who I've written about previously), Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley is a nefarious, chameleon-like character, charming but sly, and a sociopath. So it seems perfect that Dennis Hopper, whilst self-exiled in Europe for much of the 1970s, should play him in Wim Wender's The American Friend, a fine adaption of Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game.

Hopper plays Ripley as an existentialist out-of-place cowboy in Hamburg. He's a dodgy art dealer who draws innocent picture framer Johnathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz, a Wenders regular, recently seen playing Hitler in Downfall) into his underworld activities, eventually convincing him to assassinate a few people. The film contrasts Zimmerman as the family man with Ripley as the enigmatic yet amoral and rootless loner. Ripley spends a lot of time taking Polaroids of himself (whilst looking slightly like Andy Warhol) and recording his voice: 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself'.

I hadn't seen this film for years and had forgotten how good it was. Robbie Muller's moody and stylised photography is, as usual, superb, and here it gets the chance to explore the genre of film-noir with striking compositions, dark dealings and bold use of colour, in particular reds and greens. He might have looked at a Edward Hopper painting or two.

Wenders peppers the film with cultural and cinematic in-jokes; from a scene early on when Dennis Hopper sings a song from a film he acted in and directed: Easy Rider's theme music, The Ballad of Easy Rider (a throwaway by Dylan given to McGuinn); to the final scene with Hopper singing Dylan's I Pity the Poor Immigrant (and Bruno Ganz's character is called Zimmermann... an early Wender's short, Alabama: 2000 Light Years From Home, is about the differences between Dylan's version of All Along the Watchtower, and Hendrix's. Hopper and Dylan did eventually appear in a film together, the Hopper-directed Catchfire, renamed Backtrack, with Dylan playing a 'chainsaw artist'. Hopper disliked the film so much that the director credit was given to one Alan Smithee, a pseudonym used by directors who want nothing to do with their – usually butchered by the studio – film. I quite liked it).

Also acting in the film are two veteran directors of crime films: Nicholas Ray (an art forger with an eye patch) and Samuel Fuller (a gangster). Ray directed James Dean in Rebel without a Cause which was also, funnily enough, Dennis Hopper's first main screen role. Though most famous for Rebel, Ray made other great films in the 1940s and 50s, including They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground.

Both directors were lionised in the 1950s and 60s by the French New Wave directors. Which brings us onto two other actors in the film, Gerard Blain (also playing a gangster), who acted in numerous French New Wave films in the 1950s and 60s, and Jean Eustache, a French film director.

If Wender's cinematic references leaves one breathless, fear not, they are not essential to the film, which is great to look at, finely acted and taut.

Though famous for his acting and directing, Hopper was also an accomplished artist (as well as art collector) and photographer. Taschen have recently published a lavish book of his photographs.

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