The American Friend

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The American Friend
Der amerikanische Freund
German film poster for The American Friend
Directed by Wim Wenders
Written by Wim Wenders
Based on Ripley's Game by
Patricia Highsmith
Starring Dennis Hopper
Bruno Ganz
Music by Jürgen Knieper
Cinematography Robby Müller
Edited by Peter Przygodda
Distributed by Axiom Films (UK and Ireland)
Release date(s) June 24, 1977 (U.S. release)
Running time 127 minutes
Country West Germany
Language German
Budget DEM 3,000,000 (estimated)

The American Friend (German: Der amerikanische Freund) is a 1977 film by Wim Wenders, loosely adapted from the novel Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith. The film is of the neo-noir genre, and features Dennis Hopper as career criminal Tom Ripley and Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Zimmermann, a terminally ill picture framer whom Ripley coerces into becoming an assassin.

Though primarily based on Ripley's Game (1974), the film also uses elements, uncredited, of Ripley Under Ground, which was later adapted to film in 2005.[1] The source novel was cinematically adapted a second time in 2002 as Ripley's Game.


Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) is a wealthy American living comfortably in Hamburg, Germany. He is involved in an artwork forgery scheme, in which he appears at auctions to bid on forged paintings produced by an accomplice, artificially driving up the price. At one of these auctions, he is introduced to Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), a picture framer who is dying of a rare and unspecified blood disease. Jonathan refuses to shake Tom's hand when introduced, coldly saying, "I've heard of you" before walking away.

Tom is approached by an associate, a French criminal named Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain), who asks Tom if he can commit the murder of a rival gangster. Tom turns him down: "Listen. I know rock musicians. I know lawyers. I know art dealers, pimps, politicians. But murder? I don't want to be involved. Period." Minot presses Tom for an alternate solution, as he claims Tom owes him for something. Tom's idea is to spread rumors about Jonathan's illness taking a turn for the worse to make him think he has little to lose, and then for Minot to approach him with the offer to commit an assassination for a great deal of money that he can put away for his wife and son after he dies.

Jonathan initially turns Minot down, but becomes greatly distressed by the thought that he may not have long to live. He agrees to come to France to get a second medical opinion on his illness, arranged by Minot, and Minot arranges to have the results altered to make it look as if Jonathan is more ill than he actually is and hasn't long to live. The report upsets Jonathan even more, and in his grief, he agrees to commit the murder, a shooting in a subway station. Tom visits Jonathan in his shop before and after the shooting to get a picture framed, without Jonathan knowing Tom's involvement in the scheme, and the two begin to form a bond.

Minot visits Tom again, telling of his satisfaction with Jonathan's performance. Tom, who has become somewhat attached to Jonathan, is appalled when Minot says he plans to use Jonathan for another murder of a rival gangster, this time on a moving train using a garrote. Jonathan agrees to the second murder but is not convinced he'll survive the ordeal, telling Minot to make sure his wife gets the money regardless of what happens to him. Before he can go through with it, however, Tom appears on the train and executes the target himself, along with a bodyguard.

Back home, Tom and Jonathan meet and Tom confesses to getting Jonathan involved in the murder scheme for insulting him at the artwork auction, but he declines Jonathan's offer to keep the money for the second hit. When Jonathan asks Tom what he wants for helping on the train, Tom says he wants nothing from Jonathan and adds, "I would like to be your friend, but friendship isn't possible." Tom advises Jonathan to tell Minot that he did the job on the train alone.

Tom is later contacted by Jonathan, who is distressed by a couple of problems. First, his wife is becoming increasingly suspicious – she does not believe the cover stories he has been telling her about his trips and the money he has been receiving, and she believes Tom is somehow involved and corrupting him. Second, he has been receiving mysterious phone calls and believes the Mafia is trying to find them. Minot visits Jonathan with news that his flat was recently bombed. Tom picks up Jonathan and they drive to his mansion, where they wait for assassins to appear.

The gunmen are ambushed and killed by Tom and Jonathan. Tom piles their bodies into the ambulance in which they arrived, and plans for him and Jonathan to drive a great distance before disposing of the bodies. Jonathan's wife appears as they are making their plans – she confronts Jonathan and tells him that he was deceived by the altered medical reports. Tom approaches her and explains that she and her husband can settle matters later, but for now, they need to dispose of the bodies.

They drive to the sea, Tom in the ambulance and Mrs. Zimmermann driving her husband in their car, and Tom douses the ambulance with gasoline and sets fire to it on the beach, yelling in triumph over his enemies as he does so. Watching him, Jonathan ushers his wife into the car and drives away, abandoning Tom on the beach. As he drives away, he tells his wife that one day she'll have to explain everything to their son. He loses consciousness and dies on the side of the road. Tom is seen sitting by the dock on the beach, smiling and saying, "We made it anyway, Jonathan. Be careful."

Featured cast[edit]

Actor Role
Dennis Hopper Tom Ripley
Bruno Ganz Jonathan Zimmermann
Lisa Kreuzer Marianne Zimmermann
Gérard Blain Raoul Minot
Nicholas Ray Derwatt
Samuel Fuller The American Mobster
David Blue Allan Winter


Wenders was a fan of Patricia Highsmith and had wanted to adapt one of her novels to film. He initially wanted to film either The Tremor of Forgery or The Cry of the Owl but found that not only were the rights to these novels unavailable, the rights to all of Highsmith's novels had already been sold. Highsmith learned of his desire to film one of her novels and they met, where she offered him the unpublished manuscript of Ripley's Game.[2][3]

Wenders wanted to cast John Cassavetes as Ripley, but he turned it down and suggested Dennis Hopper for the part. After casting Hopper, an experienced director, Wenders decided to cast directors in all of the gangster roles, including Gérard Blain, Nicholas Ray, and Samuel Fuller. Wenders disliked the title Ripley's Game and the film was shot under the title Framed,[2] and he also considered the title Rule Without Exception. He credits Hopper with suggesting the title The American Friend.[2][3]

Popular music plays a large part in the film. Ripley quotes from the song "Ballad of Easy Rider" from Easy Rider, a film that Hopper starred in and directed. He later quotes from Bob Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee" and "I Pity the Poor Immigrant." Jonathan Zimmermann is evidently a fan of The Kinks, playing or singing their songs "Too Much on My Mind" and "Nothin' in the World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl" in his shop. Summer in the City, the first full-length feature film from Wenders, was dedicated to The Kinks. Ripley mentions to Jonathan that he's "bringing the Beatles back to Hamburg," and Jonathan quotes their song "Drive My Car" later in the film.

Critical reaction[edit]

In A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir, David N. Meyer says: "Though the plot may not make a whole lot of sense the first time around — and the thick European accents of a couple of the major actors doesn't help — The American Friend is worth the effort. Few movies from any era or genre offer such rich characters, realistic human relationships, gripping action sequences, or sly humor." [4] In Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir, Barry Gifford writes, "Of all the 'homage' films made since the 1940s and '50s meant to evoke noir, The American Friend succeeds more than most because of the spaces, the sputters, and sudden shifts of energy that allow the characters to achieve veracity."[5]

The film was entered into the 1977 Cannes Film Festival.[6] It currently holds an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[7] Roger Ebert gave the film three stars (out of four), writing: "[Wenders] challenges us to admit that we watch (and read) thrillers as much for atmosphere as for plot. And then he gives us so much atmosphere we're almost swimming in it."[8] Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club praised "the squirmy, desperate humanity that [makes the film] so hauntingly tragic."[9] David Nusair of Reel Film Reviews had a more mixed reaction, calling the film "occasionally thrilling" and praising "Ganz's subtle, thoroughly compelling performance" but criticizing what he feels to be a "disastrous final half hour."[10]

Highsmith initially disliked the film but later changed her mind.[3] Joan Schenkar's biography The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith quotes Wenders: "I was really happy with the picture and couldn't wait to have Patricia see it. But then, to my great disappointment, she was quite disturbed by it, didn't conceal that either and didn't have anything good to say about it after the screening. I left utterly frustrated. Months later, I got a letter from her. She said she had seen the film a second time, this time in a public screening on the Champs-Élysées during a visit in Paris. And she had much better feelings about it now. ... And she was full of praise for Dennis Hopper, too, whom she had flat-out rejected the first time. She now wrote that my film had captured the essence of that Ripley character better than any other films. You can guess how relieved I was!"[11] A 1988 Highsmith interview with Gerald Peary notes that she praised the film's "stylishness" and that "she thinks the scenes on the train are terrific."[1]

The film was selected as the West German entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 50th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Interview with Patricia Highsmith by Gerald Peary
  2. ^ a b c Schenkar, page 485
  3. ^ a b c The American Friend DVD - Commentary by Wim Wenders, Dennis Hopper - Starz / Anchor Bay, 2003
  4. ^ David N. Meyer (1998). A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video. Avon Books. ISBN 0-380-79067-X. 
  5. ^ Barry Gifford, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir, University Press of Mississippi, December 2000, p. 8, ISBN 978-1-57806-290-4
  6. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The American Friend". Retrieved 2009-05-10. 
  7. ^ The American Friend - Trailers - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes
  8. ^ The American Friend :: :: Reviews
  9. ^ Ripley's Game | DVD | DVD | The A.V. Club
  10. ^ Anchor Bay's Wim Wenders Collection - Reviews by David Nusair
  11. ^ Schenkar, page 485-6
  12. ^ Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences


  • Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. St. Martin's Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-312-30375-4

External links[edit]