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Film / The American Friend

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The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund) is a 1977 film from West Germany directed by Wim Wenders. It is an adaptation of Ripley's Game, the third of five novels in the "Ripliad" by Patricia Highsmith, all featuring as a character the criminal mastermind Tom Ripley.

Despite being a German production, the film is mostly in English. Despite being an adaptation of a Ripley novel, the protagonist isn't Tom Ripley. Instead, the hero is Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), a picture frame maker and art restorer who lives in Hamburg with his wife and little son. At an auction, Zimmerman meets and insults one Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), who is currently engaged in an art forgery racket.

Ripley is told that Zimmerman has a blood disease and may be terminally ill. Meanwhile, a French gangster named Minot has approached Ripley hoping to arrange a hit on one of his criminal rivals. Ripley steers Minot to Zimmerman. Zimmerman, desperate to provide for his family and worried that he may not have long left, reluctantly accepts the job. His wife grows suspicious of Jonathan's extended absences and the large sums of money suddenly popping up in their bank account. Ripley for his part starts to feel guilty about maneuvering Jonathan, who is really a quite decent fellow, into a life of crime.

Wenders cast six film directors he knew as six gangsters. Nicholas Ray appears as the artist forging paintings by a better-known dead artist named Derwatt. Samuel Fuller appears as a friend of the gangster Zimmerman is told to kill.


  • Affably Evil: Ripley is friendly and charming to Zimmerman. Then he has an attack of conscience when Minot pressures Zimmerman into carrying out a second hit. Ripley comes along for the second hit and helps Zimmerman—a good thing, since Zimmerman utterly botched it. After that Ripley tries to rescue Zimmerman from his jam by betraying Minot to the Americans.
  • Art Imitates Art: Wim Wenders took visual inspiration from the paintings of Edward Hopper.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: An early scene has an American art enthusiast talking to Zimmerman in English, with Zimmerman talking back in German.
  • Cassette Craze: Ripley has a weird habit of taping himself babbling about his insecurities. Then he plays back the tapes of himself babbling about his insecurities.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Tom Ripley quotes from the song "Ballad of Easy Rider", the theme to film Easy Rider, which starred...Dennis Hopper.
  • Credits Gag
    • The six directors that play crooks in this movie are grouped together in the credits as "the director guests".
    • Nicholas Ray's character is identified in the credits with Scare Quotes as "Derwatt", because he's forging Derwatts.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: In the book, Zimmerman dies Taking the Bullet for Ripley, although Ripley isn't sure if it was an accident or on purpose. In the film, Zimmerman dies of a sudden attack presumably caused by his illness (leukemia can cause strokes).
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: One would think that a possibly fatal "blood disease" cold just be called leukemia, but nope. (Even odder, the book does specifically name leukemia as Zimmerman's illness.)
  • Downer Ending: Just as Jonathan has seemingly escaped the clutches of the gangsters, he has a sudden attack and dies.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Scenes in Paris (where Zimmerman hunts his first target) are marked by the Eiffel Tower; scenes in New York (where Ripley meets the forger) are marked by the World Trade Center.
  • Film Noir: A neo-noir example, with a doomed man lured into murder by crooks.
  • Hollywood Silencer: Zimmerman uses the iconic, ridiculous Hollywood silencer on a revolver. (He never actually gets to fire the gun.)
  • Jump Cut: Used twice to suggest stressful moments.
    • The first time is when Jonathan is making his escape after shooting the man in Paris. There's a shot of him walking past a newsstand, then a Jump Cut shot of him leaning against a wall in relief.
    • The second time comes when a gun-wielding Minot enters Jonathan's apartment demanding to know why American bad guys are after him, thinking that Jonathan betrayed him. When Jonathan says that he didn't tell anybody, but that Ripley accompanied him on the second hit, there's a Jump Cut as Minot realizes that Ripley was the one who betrayed him.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The last shot has the forger, a minor character, walking away down the waterfront in New York.
  • Scare Quotes: Nicholas Ray's character is identified in the credits with scare quotes as "Derwatt", because he's forging Derwatts.
  • Silence Is Golden: The whole long sequence involving the first hit, where Jonathan tracks his target into the subway, follows him onto a train, follows him off of the train, shoots him on an escalator, then makes his escape, is shown without any dialogue.
  • Title Drop: Marianne is calling out Jonathan for lying about his supposed treatments and instead getting into something nefarious with Tom Ripley.
    "I don't care what you do with your American friend!"
  • Toplessness from the Back: A little bit of random fanservice from Jonathan's wife Marianne, as she takes a call after just getting out of the bath.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Zimmerman isn't sure how serious his illness is, but Minot fakes a doctor's report saying that Zimmerman is going to die soon. This is why Zimmerman agrees to carry out the hit.