Tom Ripley has a sweet deal with an art forger. The forger creates the paintings; Tom sells them. But another criminal business associate wants Tom to go in for an even riskier enterprise: murder. Tom suggests his associate ask a local picture framer instead. That man has a fatal disease, or so it’s rumored. More, he has a wife and kid that surely he wouldn’t want to leave penniless. Let this picture framer be a hit man, and no one will suspect. The terminally ill craftsman may agree to the misdeed, and several more, but he’ll end up needing Tom Ripley in a pinch.
A convoluted and cloudy murder mystery, The American Friend succeeds because of, and in spite of, its myriad ambiguities. Ripley (Dennis Hopper) drops by Derwatt (Nicholas Ray), a painter who’s faked his own death so that he can sell his works at a premium. This is a lucrative partnership since Ripley passes on the pictures in Europe while Derwatt lives his life out in peace. In a Berlin auction house Derwatt’s latest work is snapped up for a mighty sum, pleasing Ripley. On the way out he briefly chats with the happy purchaser and his colleague Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), who plys his trade as a restorer/frame-maker. Jonathan appears quite aggressive, hinting that he “knows” about Ripley and mentioning that the blues of the picture are subtly different from those of earlier works. Back at his ostentatious villa, Ripley is asked to fulfil a debt by shifty-looking Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain). He requires someone totally innocent to undertake a contract killing, leaving no ties to Raoul.
Ripley is initially repulsed by the suggestion (he may be a fraud but he’ll never be a murderer), although Raoul eventually convinces him. The choice turns out to be unassuming Jonathan; he’s suffering from an untreatable blood disease and is thus susceptible to coercion. Preying on the common fear of all patients, Ripley aims to trick Jonathan into believing that he is on the verge of death and without a reason not to kill someone. A faked diagnosis lands on Jonathan’s doormat and, immediately, he is sucked into a vortex of doubt and uncertainty. A specialist confirms that his condition is unchanged but perhaps he’s wrong or lying? While these desperate thoughts ricochet around his mind, Raoul approaches Jonathan and explains his plan. For a simple act his family will be financially secure and he’ll be safe, even getting a free visit to the American Hospital in Paris thrown in for free. In a moment of weakness Jonathan agrees, hiding these arrangements from his adoring wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer).
In Paris, the american doctor performs a series of painful medical tests, which result in a pessimistic diagnosis (these are faked by Raoul, of course). Firmly convinced that time is short, Jonathan undertakes the homicidal mission and, very amateurishly, manages to gun down his target. His sense of relief is physically palpable, lifting him up on a wave and touching off hysterical laughter. Jonathan can return to his family, at peace with his fate and in the knowledge that they’re provided for. Marianne is suspicious but elects to keep quiet. However, Raoul is the sort of gangster who’s never satisfied, eager to use Jonathan again. Ripley is firmly against further emotional blackmail but to no avail, Raoul is a very determined gentleman. The next event will take place on an express train, forcing Ripley to reveal a lot more of himself than he’s comfortable with.
Saturated with memorable visuals and lush colours, The American Friend constructs a world within which the characters reside rather than vice versa. The protagonists are surrounded by paintings, textures and technology yet can utilise none of this in their efforts to grasp their own destinies. A secondary thread concerns the fact that no one is wholly innocent or guilty, it’s purely a matter of degree. Ripley seems like a “bad guy” from his demeanour and activities, then he becomes concerned for Jonathan and the mess he threw him into. Conversely, Jonathan is a “good guy” yet he’s happy to lie grossly to his wife and commit murder. Bridging between these two a friendship begins to flourish, softening each others edges. The acting is reasonable, given the fractured plot which has to be grappled with, while Hopper produces one of the most unmannered performances of his career. For once he portrays a human being with feelings and thoughts, rather than the borderline psychos which litter his recent efforts. Wim Wenders has produced a deliberately obscure movie which works because it never forces simple solutions, on itself or the audience.
Subtitles:English srt subs (for the German spoken parts)