Tom Ripley has a sweet deal with an art forger. The forger creates the paintings; Tom sells them. But another criminal business associate wants Tom to go in for an even riskier enterprise: murder. Tom suggests his associate ask a local picture framer instead. That man has a fatal disease, or so it's rumored. More, he has a wife and kid that surely he wouldn't want to leave penniless. Let this picture framer be a hit man, and no one will suspect. The terminally ill craftsman may agree to the misdeed, and several more, but he'll end up needing Tom Ripley in a pinch. Written by
Wim Wenders is one of my favorite filmmakers, and like Scorsese and Tavernier, he is a world-class cinephile, as much in love with watching movies as he is making them. The problem with 'The American Friend,' I think, is similar to the problem of most contemporary films noir, which is, it's made with the knowledge it's a film noir. But it fails for a different reason than, say, 'L.A. Confidential.' The latter film is simply a big-budget period reconstruction of film noir, like something from the candy sampler box of film genres. It has no life of its own and is sort of like the model they show you when you're shopping around for a home in a new development; the furniture's well-chosen and neatly in place, but no one lives there. Other contemporary noirs, like Altman's 'The Long Goodbye,' approach the genre from a revisionist angle, and 'The American Friend' does it from the wrong angle, from a cinephile's angle.
The movie feels studied, like an academic exercise. It has no edge, no spontaneity. One can appreciate the movie, its cheeky comment on the art world, its humanism, without really enjoying it, and that's the trouble.
I've seen the movie twice and while its bold primary colors were appealing, and its meditative pace pleasurable to an extent, I found it a bit of a chore. It's interesting to see noir slowed down to a crawl, and Nicholas Ray is a delight, and surely, some sequences are involving, but the whole affair is lacking. Wenders' intensity has always been augmented by a certain lightness of touch, and that's what made the noir elements of 'Until the End of the World' a lot of fun. 'The American Friend' is too austere, though. Too muted. I thought 'Purple Noon,' René Clément's 1960 adaptation of the other Patricia Highsmith novel, was too muted the first time I watched it, but on subsequent viewings thought it to be engaging, almost musically so. Metaphysical heaviness for once bogs down a Wenders film rather than enhancing it.
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