A review requested by Branden, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Writer-director Wim Wenders's The American Friend is, arguably, not a very good adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game at all: it backs off on the thriller elements considerably, alters the tone, jettisons important plot details and changes the ending in tremendously significant ways, and makes the American friend of the title, Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) more of a selfish but charismatic scalawag than the manipulative urbane psychopath of the novels. It backs down enough on the traditional characterisation of English-language fiction's best charming monster that "Ripley's Game" wouldn't be a remotely satisfactory title for the movie. It is far more interested in the relationships between people and the manipulations that happen on a smaller scale, between all of us, psychopaths or otherwise. Which is why it's actually a really great adaptation of Highsmith, whose books' crime trappings are the sugary coating that hides how much they're all basically about interactions between people who want to get something out of one another. Absent Alfred Hitchcock's sublime Strangers on a Train, it's maybe the best Highsmith adaptation, in fact, or anyway the best film sourced from her work.

The title might be in reference to the talented Mr. Ripley, and Hopper might be the top-billed, but the film is actually more interested in Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), a picture framer in Hamburg. Zimmermann and Ripley come into contact when the former insults the latter, knowing the American to be deeply involved in an art forgery ring; in retaliation, Ripley passes Zimmermann's name on to Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain), a French mobster looking for a hitman. Zimmermann is no hitman, of course, but he has a wife, Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer), and child whom he dearly loves. It takes surprisingly little effort for Minot and Ripley to use faked medical tests and innuendo to convince Zimmermann that he's dying of a blood disease, and with the promise of having a nest egg to leave his family after he dies, Zimmermann falls for Minot's plan with hardly a second thought about the grisliness of the job. Meanwhile, Ripley has started to befriend Zimmermann, who knows nothing of the American's various manipulations; and cold-blooded bastard that Tom Ripley surely is, he's not necessarily keen on turning any poor innocent fella into another one of himself.

Giving more away would spoil all of the fun and give the very wrong impression that The American Friend is a conventional thriller that pushes the viewer hard through a series of twists and turns, of crimes and psychological breaks. It does not do this, to a conspicuous degree. Sure, it's generically a thriller, and Wenders isn't above putting the characters through sequences of admirably high intensity - there's a longish sequence in the film's middle, set on a train, that's a terrific daisy chain of laugh-out-loud dark comic beats and dreadful tension, that's the most memorable element of the whole movie and, in fact, one of the most baldly delightful, entertaining genre moments in the New German Cinema. But that's not at all where the film lives. This is a buddy film, in its damned peculiar way; Ripley is a nasty piece of work and Zimmermann is a personality fracturing before our eyes, but they serve as the foundation for a greatly touching depiction of friendship and mutual support - contrary to my expectation headed into the film, there's nothing ironic about the title The American Friend. Ganz and Hopper, even as they're creating edgy, bleak characters, strike up rich, meaningful camaraderie, and the movie ends up working much less as a story of crime than of how crime impacts the private lives of criminals.

With its focus on the insides of its characters heads, the film serves as a kind of updated version of noir, and it's frequently described as such. I'm not wholly inclined to that reading, though at least two truths are undeniable: one is that the film has the heavy urban atmosphere that typifies noir as one of its most characteristic elements. The other is that Wenders is eager to remind us of of American genre film, casting as mobsters the directors Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, two of the most beloved American outsiders to the various European New Waves, and it's impossible to suppose that a working knowledge of noir doesn't inform the way the film's plot works and how it relates to its characters. At the same time, the film's look is as far from noir as it gets: the great cinematographer Robby Müller shot the film with potent colors, brightly shouting out from the limitations of '70s film stock and lending a vibrant liveliness to the movie that cuts through the grottiness of the setting and scenario. This a movie that practically glows, it's so bold and pretty. That's a stark contrast between visual style and content, and it does a great deal to shift the film's energy away from anything that a plain recitation of its plot would suggest. Keeping in line with the reality that this is Zinnemann's film above all, the very particular look of The American Friend, with its pop-up colors, works in a way to evoke the very keen awareness of what things look and feel like that might occur to a man convinced he's in the last stages of his life, and being thrust into experiences far beyond anything within his sphere. It's an intense-looking film to suit the intensified perception of its protagonist, I'd argue, and a tremendously lovely one at that.

It's crafty and beguiling and unexpectedly smart about people, and the only shortcomings I can spot within it are those of context. This is not, to be horribly blunt about it, a particularly special film within the greater world of New German Cinema, nor Wenders's own career: very good, but also kind of ultimately normal. It's the first utterly "Americanised" film of that generation's self-described most Americanised filmmaker, which isn't a necessary problem. Though the director who had just completed his Road Trilogy - Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road - moving right into a genre riff couldn't help but feel like a step down. The American Friend is a very good movie that a lot of people could have made in a lot of places - Wenders, in West Germany, in 1977, doesn't leave the kind of stamp on the film that would have made it truly great (it is, however, quintessentially and irreducibly European in a way that no other Ripley film I've seen has been - but I have not seen Purple Noon). Still, not every auteur has to be turned on 100% of the time, and The American Friend is absolutely worth treasuring: a gorgeous, taut movie with vivid characters on impressively complex journeys, one of the most humane and cinematically articulate thrillers I've seen from that era.