Page-to-Screen: Wim Wenders’s The American Friend and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Novels

When writing about a film adaptation of a work of fiction, it can get a little tricky when the movie in question is actually based on two different novels. But in the case of the 1977 neo-noir title, The American Friend by Wim Wenders, it’s really not all that complicated. The movie’s characters and plot are (somewhat loosely) pulled from two books (Ripley’s Game (1974) and Ripley Under Ground (1970)) that were not only written by the same author (Patricia Highsmith), but involved the same central character (Tom Ripley).

I have to confess to not having read all five of Highsmith’s Ripley novels, but I just recently read the two involved here. And, for those unfamiliar with the literary character, I can say the following things about him based on how he is portrayed in this pair of novels:

Tom Ripley is a complicated guy.

An American living on a lush spread in France with his beautiful wife, he is a man (in his 30s or thereabouts in the two books and the film) with refined tastes, but one who can also turn underworld sewer rat when an occasion calls for it. Ripley is a man of leisure, one who has no particular profession. He spends most of his time gardening, painting, studying languages, and just generally enjoying the finer things in life. His money and the nice digs he and his wife enjoy partly come from her parents’ wealth and partly from Ripley’s various con artist schemes.

Ripley’s moral state is complex. He is a guy who doesn’t mind conning innocent others to bring money to his bank account. As evidenced in Ripley’s Game, he is also capable of imperiling the life of somebody he barely knows just to treat wounds he suffered from a personal slight.

Yet, Ripley is the kind of person who is always sympathetic to salt of the earth people such as his and his wife’s personal maid. In these novels, Highsmith shows him to sometimes experience pangs of conscience, and to act on them, when it comes to the well-being of others whose existences he has negatively impacted.

The American Friend is generally noted as being based on Ripley’s Game; and this makes sense—the primary plotline comes from that book. The story goes as such: Ripley (expertly portrayed by Dennis Hopper in the film) is asked by an underworld contact of his to help see to the murder of one, maybe two mobsters who are in the way of the schemes of him and his associates. He calls on Ripley to help him perform the dirty deeds because:

  1. Ripley is in his personal debt.
  2. He wants somebody other than a professional killer to commit the acts.
  3. He knows Ripley is savvy enough to be able to either cleanly pull off the jobs himself, or find someone else who can.

Ripley is reluctant to agree to this deal, but he ultimately comes to feel that he must comply. And then, he has the dastardly light bulb moment. He remembers this guy, this humble frame shop owner who publicly dissed him recently, shunning his friendly advance when the two were introduced at a gathering (a party in the novel and an art auction in the film).

Sometime, after the snubbing, Ripley learns that the man (Jonathon Trevanny in the book and Jonathan Zimmerman in the movie—I’ll call him Zimmerman from here on to simplify things) has a terminal blood disease. He might live as long as another several years or so, but his condition could really bring on his death at any time, even though at the moment he is stable.

Ripley dreams up a horrid trick whereby he and his criminal colleague—and some others they will reel in to their devilish intrigue—will get Zimmerman to do the murders. They will use phony doctor reports to convince the modest man (beautifully portrayed in the film by Bruno Ganz, whom many will know as one of the angels in Wenders’s Wings of Desire) that his death is more imminent than he thinks.

Since he’s about to die, doesn’t he want to earn a bunch of money now, so he can leave his wife and their child in a state of financial security?

Well, all he has to do is kind of kill this one guy he doesn’t know, and then another after that and, well, he’ll get paid a whole bunch of bucks for these little favors. The hoodwinked Zimmerman agrees to the deal, and this is where the story takes off.

Where Wenders pulls from Ripley Under Ground in The American Friend is in the movie’s subplot, which has to do with a forged art scam in which Ripley is involved, the maker of these phony paintings played in the film by famed movie director Nicholas Ray. In Highsmith’s novel, this is the main storyline, and it’s one that gets stirred up when Ripley kills a man who threatens to break up the lucrative racket Ripley and his accomplices have going. I’ll get more into this momentarily, but in my opinion, this secondary storyline is the one failing of the film.          

To my mind, the biggest difference between Wenders’s movie and Highsmith’s books is in Hopper’s presentation of Tom Ripley. In the novels, Ripley is a guy who can get edgy when he needs to, but carries on in a calmly able, even suave manner in his day-to-day mode. By contrast, and not surprisingly, Hopper’s Ripley is intense most of the time and seems to be walking the thin line between being a kind of genius and a mentally disturbed person; watching him, you almost expect Hopper’s Blue Velvet character to break through at any moment.

As hinted above, if I have a criticism of The American Friend, it’s that I’m not convinced the art scam subplot was necessary. The Zimmerman storyline is compelling enough in itself to carry the film, and the elements of Ripley Under Ground that Wenders brought to the tale aren’t fully explored and don’t add a lot to the story. It’s great to see Ray up on the screen, and he and Hopper have some good scenes together, but really this part of the movie could have—and maybe should have—been left out.

Regardless, The American Friend is an edgy crime cinema classic. In it, Wenders managed to create an atmosphere that is razor-wire taut at moments and quietly foreboding at others. The interplay between Hopper’s and Ganz’s characters is enjoyable enough in itself to make the movie worthwhile. Another big plus is the highly effective back-and-forth between Ganz’s Zimmerman and his on-screen wife, played by Lisa Kreuzer, who also acted in Wenders’s Alice in the Cities (an all-time, top 20 movie for me).

Deservingly, The American Friend is getting the Criterion treatment this month.


Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in over 20 publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction and film have been published by Noir Originals, Crime TimeCrimeculture, Paperback Parade, Mulholland Books, and Stark House Press. He is a regular contributor to The Life Sentence crime fiction web site, and Shindig! music magazine. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina. He can be found on Twitter @brianjoebrain.

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