The Daily Stream: 'The American Friend' is a Stunning and Dreamy Bit of Neo-Noir

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The MovieThe American Friend

Where You Can Stream It: The Criterion Channel

The PitchWim Wenders takes Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game and works it into a dreamy, haunting story of an unlikely friendship (or perhaps obsession is the better term, or maybe even love).

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Sometimes you need to take a break from the constant churn of digital junk vomited out by modern Hollywood and embrace a film like this – a film that reminds you that in the right hands, movies can be beautiful, strange works of art and not just delivery systems for Funko Pops and cinematic universes.

I watch a lot of movies – it’s my job – and every so often, I get into a funk. Part of that funk is because I am mentally unstable and constantly thinking about my own demise. But part of it is also because I will go through periods where I watch one mediocre movie after another. It’s not by design, it just happens. I’ll watch one new movie, then another, then another, and on a whole, they’ll all be fine at best, and huge wastes of time at worst. And when this happens, I start to get paranoid. I start to think, “Uh-oh – am I broken? Have I lost the ability to enjoy movies? Do I just not like movies anymore?” This may seem like an irrational thought, but no one has ever accused me of being rational.

It’s an alarming thought, too, because I’ve devoted my entire life to movies. They are (usually) one of the few things that bring me joy in this miserable, cruel existence. So when I hit a period where every movie I’m watching is junk, I get concerned. Thankfully, I eventually break through this vicious cycle. And I do that by watching something good. Something great. Something that serves as a reminder that every now and then, a filmmaker acts like an artist, not a product manager.

This was the case when I sat down to watch The American Friend on The Criterion Channel. I was aware of the film, but had never seen it. It’s not on Criterion as part of the streaming service’s excellent Neo-Noir line-up, and late one night I decided to finally give it a try. The results were immensely rewarding. The American Friend and its slow, strange rhythm hypnotized me. Looking at Robby Müller’s spacious, washed-out cinematography was like looking at hazy visions of some dreamy netherworld; a place both real and imagined. A place you might slip into when existence drops away.

The American Friend has elements of mystery, drama, and even a thriller, but it’s not really any of those things. And it’s also all of those things at once. Director Wim Wenders is working here with Ripley’s Game, and Patricia Highsmith’s anti-hero Tom Ripley has remained a fascinating figure for filmmakers. But the Ripley here, played by a cowboy hat-sporting Dennis Hopper, isn’t like the Ripley from previous films. That’s appropriate since Ripley is a sociopathic chameleon who can change his personality at will. Here, Ripley is an art dealer who gets mixed up with German frame maker Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz).

Through a series of unlikely events (logic isn’t this film’s strong suit, and that’s perfectly fine), Zimmermann comes to believe he’s on death’s door. He needs to make a lot of money, fast, to leave his family before he shuffles off this mortal coil. And that leads him to accept an assignment to kill someone. Zimmermann isn’t a killer, but he thinks he can become one if the price is right.

At first, Ripley is a casual observer of all of this. But a curious friendship grows between Ripley and Zimmermann. It’s akin to a non-sexual romance, similar to the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham on the TV series Hannibal. Ripley could easily leave Zimmermann to his fate, but he decides to help the German out; to come to his aid when he most needs it. And yet, the friendship between these two men is not something that can end well. As Ripley tells Zimmermann late in the film, “I would like to be your friend. But friendship isn’t possible.”

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