The American Friend
Wim Wenders pays loving homage to rough-and-tumble Hollywood film noir with The American Friend, a loose adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game. Dennis Hopper oozes quirky menace as an amoral American art dealer who entangles a terminally ill German everyman, played by Bruno Ganz, in a seedy criminal underworld as revenge for a personal slight—but when the two become embroiled in an ever-deepening murder plot, they form an unlikely bond. Filmed on location in Hamburg and Paris, with some scenes shot in grimy, late-seventies New York City, Wenders’s international breakout is a stripped-down crime story that mixes West German and American film flavors, and it features cameos by filmmakers Jean Eustache, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray.
Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, the director’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, makes its Blu-ray debut in North America through The Criterion Collection, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The film receives a new 1080p/24hz high-definition digital presentation taken from a new 4K scan of the original 35mm negative.
Though filmed almost 40-years ago this presentation makes it look like it could have been shot yesterday. We get such a crisp, highly detailed image, delivering wonderful depth and clarity, and rich textures. The very fine details in backgrounds, objects, clothing, and the like all pop off screen and the film’s grain is rendered naturally and cleanly without any obvious signs of blocking or pixilation. The image is clean and flows smoothly, retaining that filmic look one would hope for.
The biggest surprise, at least for me, is the presentation of the colours. They’re very bold, fairly vivid, and they look fairly wonderful, particularly greens, which occasionally come from the lights illuminating a scene. Black levels are fairly strong, though the last little bit of the film has some slight crushing. In terms of the condition of the source it has been cleaned substantially and I don’t recall any issues popping up, or at least didn’t note it. Altogether Criterion delivers a rather beautiful looking presentation for the film.
Actually forgetting the specs of the disc when I first popped it in I was surprised to get a fairly immersive DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track. Dialogue and most sound effects do stick to the fronts but the audio does expand to the other speakers, including the surrounds, in some of the busier sequences, like the subway sequence, the train, or other moments scattered about, catching ambient noise of the settings. Splits and direction sound good and audio levels are mixed rather well. Music also fills out the environment nicely, providing a very rich experience.
Dialogue is audible and clear, never washed out, and the general quality is sharp, with excellent range and volume levels. It’s a sharp surround presentation and a nice little surprise with the release.
A fairly modest little release it does port over the audio commentary from the previous Anchor Bay DVD, recorded in 2002, featuring director Wim Wenders and star Dennis Hopper. Wenders has the most to contribute, Hopper content to sit there and chime in once in a while when he thinks he has something to add. Wenders first covers the origins of the film, which came from his desire to adapt a novel by Patricia Highsmith, particularly Cry of the Owl. Unfortunately all of her novels had already been optioned but after hearing about Wenders’ desire to adapt one of her books she asked him to visit her and offered him her yet-unpublished Ripley’s Game. Wenders admits he had reservations about doing a Ripley novel (he didn’t quite get the character) but went with it. From here we get a number of stories about the production, the most fascinating probably having to do with Hopper first arriving straight from the shoot of Apocalypse Now still in costume and apparently still high from whatever drugs he had loaded into his system, which called for an immediate detox (Hopper here admits he was “out of it”). Hopper, when he chimes in, talks about what he likes about the film (he particularly likes how Wenders makes all the various locations look “the same”), what it was like working with Wenders, and at the end praises the director and his work, particularly Wings of Desire. Wenders likewise praises Hopper for teaching him so much while making this film. Though I had hoped Hopper would have more to contribute it’s good commentary track: it’s loose, not stuffy, and quite entertaining.
New for this release Criterion has recorded a 37-minute interview with Wim Wenders. He more or less summarizes a lot of what he says in the commentary track, but he does expand on areas, like the physical fight Hopper and actor Bruno Ganz got into before becoming the best of friends (this led to the title “The American Friend”) and getting to work with a variety of directors as actors in the film, particularly Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller. He also talks a bit more about shooting the train scene, which was difficult since it was actually shot in multiple locations, including an actual train and on a soundstage. He recounts Highsmith’s reaction to the film (he does in the commentary as well), which wasn’t good initially but it apparently grew on her, with her feeling it may have captured her sociopathic character the best, despite the cowboy hat (it sounds like that turned her off). If you don’t have the time for the commentary this offers a decent summarization, though between the two I may prefer the commentary a bit more.
Criterion has then recorded a new 27-minute interview with actor Bruno Ganz, who recalls his first film after a career that consisted primarily of stage work. As suggested in the previous interview and commentary Ganz, who was unsure how to act in a film, was a little uncomfortable around Hopper at first since Ganz would work hard to prepare while Hopper would just go along with whatever he was feeling at the moment. This created a bit of tension and admits the two did get into a fist fight (he says Hopper could be “hot headed”) but became friends once they found a common ground. The experience was certainly different and a little more grueling, the train sequence being especially difficult since it was so physical. He thought it was a great experience though he judges his performance now, nitpicking all the things he would do differently now (I’m curious what that may be as I thought he was fantastic in the film and if he had any reservations or doubts they don’t show). It’s an enjoyable, very forthcoming interview.
Also carried over from the previous DVD is a compilation of deleted scenes and outtakes, which look to have been put together by Wenders. There’s a few little subplots scattered about here, like when Jonathan and Marianne leave Daniel at home by himself, more on Marianne’s day-to-day, and there’s also an interesting scene where it’s discovered that the telegram that Jonathan received about his condition is fake. We also get some outtakes, including an amusing bit featuring Wenders trying to direct the child actor who plays Daniel. Interestingly we also see Ripley’s maid, who is mentioned in the commentary by Hopper, but is missing from the finished film, apparently to make Ripley feel more alone. There is an optional commentary by Wenders but it doesn’t add too much, more or less explaining the context of the scenes while also explaining in some cases why the scenes were trimmed. The scenes, though, are all very good and I liked how this feature was put together. Surprisingly the footage is in very good shape, only sporting some minor damage.
The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer and the included insert features an essay by Francine Prose, covering the film’s themes, character, and Wenders abilities at creating scenes obviously inspired by Hitchcock.
Other than the essay the release does disappointingly lack a more scholarly slant, and I was a bit disappointed that Criterion didn’t take the time to look at Highsmith or the Ripley character (they didn’t even do that in their Purple Noon release) or even provide any analysis of Wenders’ take on thrillers and/or noir. Yet, despite these gaping holes I enjoyed the material here, which provided some wonderful background on the film’s production.
In all a wonderful release. Sporting a beautiful transfer and some engaging supplements this new edition comes with a high recommendation for fans of the film.