08 August 2010

Wender's Ripley

When Dennis Hopper kicked the bucket I read the obituaries carefully trying to pinpoint some films that I could watch with the "good" Hopper, as I actively dislike his performances in every film I can think of besides Blue Velvet (and even then, it's Lynch who deserves the credit for lassoing the absurdity into usefulness).

Many critics complemented Wim Wender's The American Friend and that was first up, given my desire to see more Wenders and passion for all things Ripley. To cut to the chase: it's the same old menacing ferret routine from Hopper and he bored me. But Wenders' direction, and Bruno Ganz's character Jonathan Zimmermann, the true star of the film, make it worth a Netflixing.

Hopper's Ripley is less a tasteless, obsessive compulsive murderer (as portrayed by Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon, et al) than an addled Eli Cash figure who tangles the terminally ill Zimmermann (a picture framer who's being framed!) in an assassination plot. Ganz is wonderfully wracked as a man caught between morality and the kind of money that could set up his wife and son after his death. It's fascinating to see how the act of murder charges Zimmermann with a new vitality, the adrenaline coursing through him as he makes his escapes. One moving scene has him slinking home to present a gyroscope to his son in the bathtub, moments before his wife chews him out for, you know, killing people for money.

Wenders makes all kinds of idiosyncratic choices with The American Friend. To fill the roles of two old criminals, he picks the directors Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, both satisfyingly salty. He drenches some exterior shots with so much primary color that I have to wonder if Mr. Beatty had seen the film before directing Dick Tracy. Ripley is provided with the only car he could possibly drive through Hamburg: a white Ford Thunderbird with red interior. And, for a thriller, Wenders gives a lot of screen time to small moments, like a staredown between Zimmerman and a lapdog on a train and a conversation between art dealers on whether the shade of blue gives away one of Ripley's forgeries (they decide the painting will sell in New York regardless). By establishing such a textured backdrop, Wenders ensured my commitment to the characters as they careened towards their deranged ends.

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