The American Friend (1977)

When I discovered that one of my favorite directors adapted a Patricia Highsmith novel, I was overcome with excitement. Being a huge fan of her work and a couple of the film adaptations that followed, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, I am reminded that at some point, I need to pick up some Highsmith books at some point for summer reading. There's something about the Ripley character in particular. He's a sociopath with a need to connect. That need is so intense that it gets the best of him, winding up involved in a variety of crimes, causing damage left and right. I remember being quite taken with Matt Damon's portrayal, since he is obviously charming, but off-putting due his social awkwardness. Yet I could easily identify with moments in which he experienced self-inflicted rejection when his friend played by Jude Law, winds up putting all his energy and attention into someone else. Obviously, I would never resort to murder and causing harm like Ripley does. Jealousy is a part of the human condition, that thankfully has become more manageable easily as I've gotten older but for Ripley, it's an all-consuming self-destructive force.

I'm not nearly as familiar with the early work of Wim Wenders. Obviously I love both of his most well-renowned classics, WINGS OF DESIRE and PARIS TEXAS. The latter being my favorite film ever made. So my expectations are often high when getting ready to watch his films. THE AMERICAN FRIEND is one of those experiences in which the flaws are apparent. Even Highsmith took awhile to warm up to Wenders' take on her work, but she eventually did. The slow-burn pacing, the lack of clarity to the double-crossing that ensues, and most of all, an incredibly dense plot. At some point, I stopped engaging with the film as a story, and more as a mood piece full of atmosphere, gorgeous cinematography, and impending Hitchcockian-infused dread. It's an unnerving movie that's full of subtle existential terror, heightened by an incredible Hermann-esque score and of course, the unpredictable Dennis Hopper. Hopper doesn't try to be liked or shoot for charisma when interacting with others, he is more of a blank canvas that is filled with whatever need must be met in the moment. He's unhinged, but not in a way that we've seen him before in other films like BLUE VELVET. He is a quieter, gentler sociopath that is incredibly convincing in his desire for an ephemeral friendship.

The plot is almost secondary to the emotional landscape he paints, something that Wenders specializes in that I truly respond to. His characters aren't given too much context for the audience to comprehend motivation, which isn't easy to adapt to. But I gave in, since I felt entranced rather than unengaged. I read that this adaptation is given a political, amoral treatment in relation to German culture clashing with American culture, and vice versa. That reading didn't click with me on first viewing since I mainly gravitated towards the friendship that eventually develops between the two leads. Wenders’ being the cinephile that he was couldn’t resist adding some notable, Godard-like cameos, giving roles to then-still-unsung living film legends Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray. Added to that, the cinematography is jaw-dropping in ways that reminded me of PARIS TEXAS. I sense that Wenders feels emotions very deeply, but not all of his films are full of warmth and humanity which might be a weird disconnect for a lot of viewers. THE AMERICAN FRIEND is more of a gulf that you get swept into, that actually moved me in ways that snuck up on me by the very end. It's not anywhere in the same league in terms of originality of THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, but I had a similar reaction in the ways it surprised me. Its ideas and the feelings it sparked up, trumped my initial reservations about it being too slow or vague at times. Obviously there are unforgettable set pieces involving murder that easily scream out “Wenders wanted to pay homage to Hitchcock,” but luckily he pulls it off gracefully especially a prolonged sequence set on a train. There's just something about 70s cinema that is full of desperation and personal expression, that speaks to me and makes my love for movies grow stronger the more and more I watch from that era. Obviously, this is a decade that most cinephiles adore, but the themes of disconnection, identity crisis, recklessness truly resonate and THE AMERICAN FRIEND is no exception. It's not a perfect movie by any stretch, but I loved nearly everything about it to where it's another all-time favorite that I can't wait to watch again.   A-

James Laczkowski