The American Friend

The American Friend (1977)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, “Der amerikanische Freund” or “The American Friend” was about Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) who had to pay off a debt so he sold paintings in Europe by a painter (Nicholas Ray) who faked his own death. However, the amount of money Tom made wasn’t enough so a friend (Gérard Blain) suggested that Tom finds a way for an innocent family man (Bruno Ganz), who suffered from a rare blood disease, to kill whoever got in the way of their business. Despite the languid tone of the picture, I was consistently interested in what was happening because the way the story unfolded was not something I expected. Having seen other films in which Tom Ripley was the main character (epitomized by Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), I thought it was refreshing that Hopper’s interpretation of his character was more cryptic and less insecure while remaining quite venomous when the occasion called for it. I also did not expect that the story gave more focus on the Ganz’ character than Tom. There was an emphasis in the relationship with his wife (Lisa Kreuzer) and child and his concern regarding his mortality. There was one scene where Ganz wondered if his child would remember his face when he was gone. That scene had a certain resonance and, at least for me, it explained why he decided to take up a contract and attempt to murder other people. While the movie had its share of thrilling elements such as the scenes in the subway station (which was exemplary) and the train, the picture wore its heart on its sleeves by showing how secrets and illness challenged the bond between a husband and wife. The main problem I had with “The American Friend” was it did not spend enough time shedding the layers of Hopper’s character. From start to finish, I did not quite fully connect with him because he remained as a mysterious figure accompained by superficially strange antics. I did not know anything about his past which was a missed opportunity because sociopaths are fascinating character studies. There is something creepy or scary about a person who has to fake his emotions in order to pass as “normal” but the movie barely touched on it. For an over two-hour running time, a lack of exploration of the Tom character was no excuse especially when the film had scenes that weren’t necessary to elevate the big picture.

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