Friday, May 08, 2009

Personal Canon: 89. The American Friend (1977)

Directed by Wim Wenders
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kreuzer, Gerard Blain

A discussion of Wim Wender's The American Friend in a Film Studies seminar a couple of years ago instigated a bit of an argument. My suggestion of a gay subtext in the film went down like a lead balloon, to which I responded defensively -- as anyone would. All I know is that my gaydar was going like the clappers all the way through The American Friend, which is adapted from one of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels. Ripley has a pretty ambiguous sexuality himself -- even if Highsmith has publicly denied that he's gay she more than hints that he's a dabbler.

Regardless, The American Friend feels oddly weighty and harsh in its derelict urban setting, and Wenders' direction often accentuates the grime of workshops and bedrooms through heavy tinting and intent close-ups. It's all so sparse: the broken community of the film's modest amount of characters and settings alluding to the disarray of international relations, culture clashes, and the pummelled identity of a people lost to fascism. Bruno Ganz's illness-stricken German picture-framer forms a friendship with a dealer of forged art (Dennis Hopper as the aforementioned Ripley), who in turn mentions to gangland friends that the German would make a good hitman.

Jonathan Lynn's hilarious biting satire Clue offers up a mini-revelation in the form of the line, "Why should the police come? Nobody's called them.". The power of suggestion similarly takes hold in The American Friend, and the willingness of woodworker Jonathan to accept such suggestion is rather like the assuming role of Germany in the Hitler years. This suggestion is also embodied by the bravely-alienating flirtation between Jonathan and Ripley, who don't quite reach the prick-teasing efforts of Jude Law and Michael Caine in the recent Sleuth, but certainly more than hint that they're pining for one another. Since The American Friend bears a lot of the hallmarks of 70's crime drama's like The French Connection, its remarkable that it has time to fully integrate the sexual endeavours and rich politics: a potent mix.

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