The American Friend (1977)

The art and mastery of deception have been approached by many and accomplished by few. Distinguishing features discerning individuals’ capabilities in this realm include narcissism, antisocial traits, and overall lack of empathy. Those with these aforementioned traits may slide into the world of fraudulence with great ease while those with higher levels of compassion and appreciation of others’ needs undoubtedly experience guilt. However, particular needs, desires, and goals may create drive to bypass emotions associated with guilt to fulfill immoral acts. Wim Winders’ 1977 neo-noir “The American Friend” based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1974 novel “Ripley’s Game” wholeheartedly explores this concept with a humble frame-maker at the epicentre of this dilemma.

Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is, as already mentioned, an owner of a frame-making shop in Hamburg with an extremely rare hematological malady. He has an initial icy encounter with wealthy American “cowboy” and art forgery extraordinaire Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) at an art auction. French gangster Raoul Minot (Gerard Blain) subsequently asks Ripley to kill members of a rival crime syndicate. Displeased by this interaction with the frame-maker, Ripley indirectly rights this disdainful encounter by setting up Zimmermann as a lowly assassin for this purpose. Unsuspecting and honest Zimmermann is thus carefully manipulated and deeply thrust into the once unknown crime underworld with financial coercion.

Many elements of this film create synergy in its effective delivery of suspense and urgency. The slow buildup of knowingly future tense scenes produces a sense of dread, desperation, and bewilderment. I feel that this necessary technique pays homage to the film noir aura, and especially the style of Hitchcock. The dissimilar and plot-enhancing fast-paced train sequence pays homage to “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Strangers on a Train”, the latter which is based on a novel of the same name written by Highsmith. I also believe that he contrasting vast scenery of Hamburg and claustrophobic images within rooms amplify the conflicted and tormented inner selves of the main characters.

Ultimately, Ripley and Zimmermann establish a mutual agreement. Some may even call it a friendship, with Ripley being “the American friend”. However, there is a lack of genuineness and sense of hypocrisy in the contextual use of the word. This amicability was built on lies, murder, initial disrespect, and exploitation. I believe that both used each other as means to an end in their pursuits, which is unfortunately how some so-called “friendships” operate in the real world. Roots of jealousy and conspiracy can grow from either acquaintances or perceivably strong friendships, leading to a destructive snowball effect. It is therefore imperative that honesty, humility, respect, and true care serve as the foundation for any relationship.

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I do not own the above image.

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