West Germany, France
In a ratty apartment in Germany, an elderly painter mutters to himself as he stares at his latest creation. Surrounded by disheveled newspapers and dirty brushes, he inspects the painting, first covering his right eye, then his left. A knock is heard. “Who is it?” “It’s Ripley.” He pauses. “The door’s open.” A man in a dark suit walks in and tips a cowboy hat resting on his brow. The man hands the painter a wad of bills. “I sold one painting and ready to sell another one.” “How much?” “That’s 2,000 dollars for you.” The man in the cowboy hat walks around the painter’s apartment. “Now this...I think I can get even more for this one. I could use two of these in six months.” “In six months I can paint five. Try to sell five.” “Two. Don’t be too busy for a dead painter.” The painter looks at the other man, points, and chuckles. “Do you wear that hat in Hamburg?” The other man takes off the hat, briefly looks at it, and smiles. “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?”
What, indeed, is wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg? Particularly when the cowboy in question is Tom Ripley, a wealthy American criminal who helps run an art forgery ring. A suave spectre of the European art world, Ripley has refined his criminal activities to a fine science. He attends art auctions where he bids on forged paintings done by the German, driving the price sky-high. He pockets the extra money and repeats the process all over again. It is a perfect system. Even Jesse James would be impressed.
Perhaps it seems odd that such a small moment would ignite an entire film. It happens so fast that it is easy to miss. But The American Friend is a film of manners and style, knowing glances and seemingly empty faces. It is a love letter and subliminal condemnation of American culture. For Wenders, the style becomes the substance.
For those familiar with Tom Ripley, the main character of Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripliad,” a pentalogy of crime novels about a refined yet amoral criminal, what happens next to Zimmermann is shocking, but not unexpected. A French criminal named Raoul Minot asks Ripley if he could assassinate a rival gangster. Ripley refuses, but suggests an alternative. He orchestrates a plot wherein Zimmermann is convinced that his blood condition has worsened and that he only has a short amount of time left. Once Zimmermann is completely horrified of his “impending” death, Minot swoops in and offers him a massive sum of money in exchange for carrying out the assassination. Desperate to provide his wife and son with some money to survive on, Zimmermann agrees and murders the gangster in a subway station.
However, things are complicated when Minot reveals to Ripley that he was so pleased with Zimmermann’s work that he plans on using him again. Only this time, the murder will take place on a train with a garrote. Ripley is horrified at this development. See, Ripley had visited Zimmermann’s shop before and after the first murder in order to get a picture framed. An unlikely friendship grew between the two, all the while with Zimmermann completely unaware of Ripley’s machinations. So Ripley interrupts the second murder and dispatches the target himself. Afterwards Ripley reveals the truth to Zimmermann, leading to one of the film’s best scenes. Zimmermann offers Ripley the money for the hit. Ripley refuses and states, “I would like to be your friend, but friendship isn’t possible.” But their reconciliation is cut short when more gangsters arrive to kill them both for Ripley’s intervention.
On the surface it might seem like The American Friend is merely a hollow adaption of Highsmith’s novel, especially when compared to the critical darling Ripley’s Game (2002), also based on the same novel. The 2002 film by Liliana Cavani focused more on the character of Ripley, portrayed by John Malkovich in a career-defining performance, than on his relationship with Zimmermann. Malkovich played Ripley as a sterile sociopath akin to Hannibal Lector without the sense of humor and cannibalistic craving for human flesh. But I find Dennis Hopper’s performance in The American Friend more intriguing. I still don’t quite understand Malkovich Ripley’s motivation for saving Zimmermann. But I can easily accept and sympathize with Hopper Ripley’s change of heart. He is a man so used to respect that Zimmermann’s insult seemed emasculating. I think it was no coincidence that Wenders framed Ripley’s rejected handshake as a deflating phallus.
This emasculation is further driven home when one examines Wenders’ thematic inspirations. Heavily inspired by American cinema, Wenders’ Ripley-Zimmermann relationship evokes hard-boiled film noir and 50s melodrama where masculinity was closely guarded and defended in the face of social and familial pressures. Malkovich Ripley saved Zimmermann because that’s what the story needed to continue. Hopper Ripley saved Zimmermann because he realized it was the right thing to do. So what, indeed, is wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg? One thing’s for sure: there’s more to it than Ripley’s hat.