Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) is part of a scam on the art world where he takes paintings by his supposedly deceased friend Derwatt (Nicholas Ray) and sells them at auction for prices which would be lower if he were known to be still alive. One day he is attending one of those auctions when he notices a conversation occuring to one side, where a picture framer, Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), disparages Derwatt's work; affronted, Ripley finds himself introduced to this man after the painting has been sold, and is even more insulted when Jonathan refuses to shake his hand, knowing Ripley's reputation. Big mistake...
The character of Tom Ripley was created by Patricia Highsmith for a series of crime novels over her long career, and those books have been filmed with a variety of leading men in the role, all bringing something different to what could have been unimaginatively presented villain types. Yet something in that part brings out such varied interpretations that you can see why it has attracted such a diverse group of thesps, from Alain Delon in Plein Soleil, the first Ripley, to Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley, the remake of that initial work, to John Malkovich exhibiting a very Malkovich-y approach in Ripley's Game, which was in effect a remake of this, the German version of Highsmith's book.
Except of course, none of those films are of a series, as they are all standalone pieces, and for many viewers The American Friend is the best of the lot. That in spite of Highsmith herself having reservations about Hopper's portrayal - complete with cowboy hat to cartoonsihly underline the Imperialist running dog take on Ripley - and Hopper not really being an exact facsimile of the book's protagonist, at least on the surface. Highsmith only had herself to blame as it was she who offered director Wim Wenders (a big fan of hers) the manuscript of Ripley's Game to adapt, yet in actuality Hopper nailed the amorality that made the novels so compelling, and he brought his natural charisma to what could have been a walking plot device to drag Jonathan down to his level.
Jonathan is a quiet family man who has never dreamt of breaking the law in his life; he is recovering from leukemia and believes that he will survive until Ripley arranges it so that he is contacted by gangsters who tell him that they will pay for him to see a specialist in Paris, who will cure him for good. Oh, and one other thing: could he perform a hit on one of their targets? Jonathan is taken aback, but once he gets the results of this test through, which fool him into thinking that he is in fact now dying of his disease, he comes around to the idea as he wil be paid enough money to keep his young family safe once he has gone. And so the two protagonists begin to affect each other's lives, as not only is Jonathan getting to like the idea of becoming a criminal like Tom, but Ripley is jealous of his new "friend" and his stable, happy home life, to the extent of wishing to ruin him.
Of course, once murder enters the picture, that happy home life is disrupted, especially after that initial assassination which sees Jonathan get a taste for this new experience. That first kill sequence is filmed in a tense, almost haphazard fashion with Zimmerman messing up and achieving his goal (or the goal of Ripley) more by accident than design, but the real highlight is when he agrees to do it again, this time on a train. It's about to go the same way until Tom appears as if from nowhere and saves the day. There's a giddiness to their desperation here as the bodies mount up and they have to hide the fact from the ticket inspector, never mind the other passengers. It is at this point that they really do become allies, yet Ripley's dark heart infects Jonathan to the extent that this decent man is corrupted, reluctantly at first and then willingly as a sense of nothing left to lose dominates. The American Friend is rich in character like this, and if Wenders lets the plot get away from him, Hopper and Ganz are more than capable of keeping us watching and Robby Müller's visuals are stunning. Great music, too, by Jürgen Knieper.
German director and writer and one of modern cinema's most important European filmmakers. Wenders films tend to blend social commentary with genre material - thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy. It was his acclaimed "road movies" of the mid-seventies - Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move and the epic Kings of the Road that first brought him international attention. 1977's The American Friend was a post-modern thriller starring Bruno Ganz, and although the making of Hammett was a difficult experience, he won his greatest acclaim for the moving drama Paris, Texas, written by Sam Shepherd.
1987's Wings of Desire was another triumph, and if he's yet to equal those classics, subsequent work has at least been a series of fascinating failures. Until the End of the World was an ambitious sci-fi piece, Faraway, So Close sequalised Wings of Desire, while The End of Violence, Million Dollar Hotel and Land of Plenty were dark, offbeat dramas. Wenders' film Don't Come Knocking was written by and starring Sam Shepherd, while Submergence was a globetrotting romance based on a bestselling novel. His best recent work have in fact been documentaries, including the The Soul of a Man for Martin Scorsese's Blues series and the Oscar-nominated Buena Vista Social Club.