Friday, March 18, 2016
#793: The American Friend
Patricia Highsmith looms large in cinema when it comes to 20th century novelists. Her greatest contribution to the medium was Hitchcock's 1951 masterpiece Strangers on a Train, but Purple Noon (which is in the Collection) and Talented Mr Ripley are also significant works, both based on the same novel with different takes. Just last year, Todd Haynes delivered Carol, which was just hastily voted the best LGBT movie of all time in a BFI poll (the film's portrayal of lesbians stands in contrast to Strangers on a Train's homoerotic portrayal of the evil Bruno, a Freudian and outdated psychosis that mars an otherwise near-perfect film).
The American Friend is a loose adaptation of one of Highsmith's other Ripley books, one that hadn't even been published by the time Wenders bought the rights and decided to adapt it for the big screen. Unsurprisingly, Wenders did not stick to the novel closely, and The American Friend is consequently closer in style to Wenders's other films than to Highsmith's other adaptations. That said, there remains a bit of homoerotic subtext and many of the tragic undertones of ordinary people caught up in a story that propels them toward ruin that are present in most of Highsmith's work. The movie is a much richer noir tribute because of it.
Wenders makes movies that seem to exist in their own realities, a trend that culminated in his greatest film, Wings of Desire, which straddled the border between waking state and dreamworld, this life and the one after, cinema and transcendence. The American Friend is no different, though it desperately wants to belong to the long tradition of American noir and lost 60s idealism of Hopper's own films. Although Hopper was not Wenders's first choice for Ripley, he matches the tone of the film perfectly, and I don't think it would be as meaningful with a pure actor in the role. There's very little in the way of suspense here, though the two murder sequences are tautly constructed, and Wenders is instead more interested in the layering of emotional connections and the quiet descent into noir-styled fatalism. Many noir films unfurl like dreams, which has often led to surreal entries in the genre. Wenders opts for gritty and deliberate realism, which elevates the drama to mythical levels anyway.
The American Friend is most notable as a Wenders film, but it's still an excellent thriller with existential charm. It's a minor entry in his catalog that sets the stage for the recently announced Road Trilogy and likely more Wenders in the coming years. (The State of Things? Until the End of the World? There have been rumors of Buena Vista Social Club.) Hopefully that set will match the towering charms of Wings and Paris, Texas, but for now this will do as a holdover.