DVD Review– The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund)
(DVD Review– The American Friend by Christopher Chan who looks at Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper)
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game, the 1977 movie The American Friend is an intriguing experiment in crime drama. The West German production is bilingual, blending English dialogue with German (the latter is subtitled), and takes major liberties with Highsmith’s works. Dennis Hopper stars as the antihero Tom Ripley, with Bruno Ganz as the seriously sick picture framer Jonathan Zimmerman, who Ripley believes will make an excellent hit man.
The plot begins with art fraud and the twisted Ripley deciding that certain people are better off dead than alive. What follows is so complex that a concise summary is nearly impossible, but like much of Highsmith’s work, it focuses on the darker aspects of human nature, and there is no clean and satisfying sense of justice.
According to one anecdote, Highsmith was decidedly cool toward the film when she first saw it, though a second viewing led to a much more positive opinion. Like many complex works, viewers’ responses to The American Friend will depend upon their mood and their tenacity. It’s a dense film, made more difficult by thick accents, murmured words, and confusing scenes. This is not the kind of movie that one can watch with one eye on one’s iPad and a mouth full of crunchy snacks. Let your mind wander for a minute, and you’ll get lost. After doing some research into the movie, I was immensely relieved to see that I was not the only one who had to repeatedly rewatch scenes in order to figure out just what the heck was going on, and eventually had to move on without being quite sure what happened.
The movie is challenging but not impenetrable. People wanting to relax with a thriller will be disappointed. The film requires close attention and repeat viewings, and viewers have to decide for themselves whether or not they want to make the investment of time and frustration.
Visually, the movie is deeply atmospheric and artistically shot. Every scene is filled with quiet menace and evil lies in every shadow. For such a thematically dark movie, the film presents an extremely effective and artistic use of light, from the harsh fluorescent white light overhead to a hazy blue neon light that fills a room with seemingly visible evil.
Like a particularly dense novel, The American Friend requires effort and attention to understand. I cannot recommend the movie to everybody, but for those who are willing to put effort into their viewing experience, the film may well prove rewarding.
The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund)
The Criterion Collection