Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The American Friend

"If you close up the doors they'll start coming in the windows."

"The Riplaid" is one of my favorite series in the crime genre (and if you haven’t read them, now would be an excellent time Random House has put out a new printing with covers and design that captures the tone of Highsmith’s work so perfectly I was frankly pissed that I'm not quite a big enough chump to buy the books again).

He’s a fascinating character. And one who filmmakers seem to find damn near impossible to capture on film. The thing that makes Ripley fascinating and frightening is that he simply has no motivations beyond convenience. He doesn't kill out of anger. He doesn’t hate the people he kills, normally he likes them, it’s just that well gosh its awful convenient for them to die. Ripley lives a life of comfort, gardening in his villa, painting in his spare time, occasionally traveling and fucking his French wife. And by God if he has to kill someone every couple of years to sustain that life, well then he’ll lose no sleep over it. And yet you still like Ripley you root for him. Why he’d probably like you too, right before he beat you to death with a fire poker. This is why Anthony Minghella’s version of The Talented Mister Ripley can best be described as a misinterpretation of epic proportions. Turning Ripley into persecuted victim. Turning Dickey Greenleaf into a sneering sociopath and Freddy Lounds into a tormentor. Making his first murder one of self defense. Giving him reasons. I can’t watch that movie without my brain screaming “WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG.”

You can’t even cloak Ripley’s motives in philosophy (like Malchovich did in his fun but ultimately misguided performance in Ripley’s Game). He’s not a Nietzchien, or a Randian, or any kind of strong man. His greatest desire is to live in bourgeois, material contentment and occasionally get a chance to demonstrate his cleverness.

Dennis Hopper’s performance comes the closet to getting Ripley right. Its not quite there. While the vulnerability that Hopper and Wender’s decide to focus on, is decidedly canonical (unlike again Minghella's) they sacrifice one element of Ripley for another, capturing his vulnerability but not his supreme lack of a guilty conscienceness.

Still even if it doesn’t quite capture the stunning amorality of Highsmith’s world, The American Friend comes tantalizing close.

Combining threads from "Ripley Under Ground" and "Ripley’s Game", The American Friend follows Ripley as he perpetrates an art scam, forcing the great Nicholas Ray to create forgeries of a dead artist’s work, and enlists an ordinary man dying of cancer to commit some murders when the scheme complicates. (Sam Fuller also cameo’s, perfectly cast as a crime boss. Though sadly the two greats do not get to share a scene).

I have mixed feelings about Wenders. Though I am a great admirer of his early work in particular King Of The Road, Lightning Over The Water, Paris Texas, and Wings Of Desire are all flat out masterpieces, and The New German Cinema in general. I have reservations about him, as anyone who has actually sat through Don’t Come Knockin in the theaters must. Wender has spent the latter part of his career making not merely bad movies but movies in painted with a particular type of badness that call in to question what you liked about his work in the first place.

Still he’s in fine form here. Able to modulate his tone in a way I didn’t know he could do. The film is taught by his standards (and slow by any other). In a way it doesn’t matter that the film doesn’t quite capture Ripley as the film is much more Zimmerman’s (The unlucky dying man. Played in fine form by Bruno Ganz.) then it is Ripley’s. As Zimmerman weighs his decision, Ripley disappears from on screen for nearly an hour, as the film becomes meditative in a way that is completely unexpected in a crime filler. With Wender’s finding some shocking lyrical imagery.

Odd that the one detail from Highsmith’s work that Wender’s deliberately eschews is Ripley’s class, turning Ripley into a high living vagabond rather then Highsmith’s entranched (if on the borderlands) member of the upper class. I’ll admit its not quite a move I understand. Especially seen in context of the Germany this film was made in, in which class was such a touchy issue people were blowing each other up over it. Was he trying to “claim” Ripley as a hero? I don’t believe so, it doesn’t jibe with the Hopper as a symbol of American corruption that the film works so hard to cultivate from the title on down.

The American Friend comes tantalizingly close to nailing down one of the most elusive characters in modern literature. That it doesn’t quite succeed makes it no less of a fascinating film.


Matt Keeley said...

I'd been meaning to watch the '99 adaptation. You have just convinced me otherwise. Self-defense? Ugh.

Have you seen Plein Soleil? I gather a lot of Ripley fans appreciate that one, even if it has an "unhappy" ending.

The new Random House covers are indeed gorgeous. Highsmith tends to get really good covers: http://causticcovercritic.blogspot.com/2009/11/highsmiths.html

Link is somewhat NSFW, as it contains a topless photo of the author. (That, by the way, is definitely the strangest caveat I have ever given to a link)

Bryce Wilson said...

I'd recommend watching The 99 version anyway. Its an interesting film. Even if it gets it wrong. At the very least it forces you to think about Ripley as a character (what is he if not this) and the cinematography is beautiful.

I haven't seen Purple Noon. I love Alain Delion but he seems a bit glamorous for Ripley. And the change in ending doesn't sit right with me. I'm sure I'll eventually watch it though.

Have you seen Ripley's Game. Its fun watching Malchovich play Ripley. And he has some great moments, but he's way too Hannibal Lecter.

Thanks for the awesome link and Caveat.

Matt Keeley said...

Haven't seen Ripley's Game as yet, as I've only read the first two books thus far. And as I understand it's the best in the series, I'm loath to spoil it by watching a movie that doesn't quite match the source.

Bryce Wilson said...

Very wise. Its worth watching afterwards though.

I'd rank it right after Friend on the scale of Ripley adaptations. Its fun even if it doesn't get it right.

Craig D. said...

It's nice to see someone else appreciate Hopper's Ripley. It drives me nuts when critics call Malkovich's Ripley the best and most faithful and Hopper's the worst and least faithful. Hopper is easily the closest to the character of the books and his performance is easily the best. I think these critics are just looking at surface details: Malkovich wears nice clothes and plays the harpsichord, while Hopper walks around in a cowboy hat and has a jukebox in his house, so clearly Malkovich is Ripley and Hopper isn't, right? But it's the performance that counts, and Malkovich ultimately comes off more like Hannibal Lecter than Tom Ripley, and Hopper captures more of the character than any other actor. Ripley's class is pretty much the only thing from the books that's left behind.

I do have to disagree about one thing, though: it's not unfaithful to the book to show Ripley as having something of a conscience. I think it's a common fallacy to describe Ripley as utterly amoral, since he does have his own set of ethics. And while it's true that the events of Ripley's Game don't give Tom much trouble after Jonathan is dead, the fact remains that he felt enough of a tug of conscience to help Jonathan out on the train. Of course, he was also partially motivated by his hatred of the Mafia and the delight he takes in killing its members, but he did feel a bit guilty for getting Jonathan involved, if only a little. And there's always Dickie Greenleaf, the one murder he admits to feeling guilt over.

Purple Noon is the second best Ripley film. It's somewhat simplistic, but I wouldn't call it dumbed down. Alain Delon is terrific, if too pretty. The homoerotic subtext, which the literary critics love to focus on, was stripped away, but I never thought it was all that strong in the books. The cowardly ending, in which Ripley is caught by the police, almost spoils the whole thing. Just turn the DVD off after Tom says, "The best."

The Talented Mr. Ripley is easily the worst, of the films I've seen. (Ripley Under Ground was made six years ago and still hasn't been released.) The character of Ripley was altered beyond recognition and the whole thing comes off as much too long and pleased with itself. It's worth a watch for Jude Law and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but not much else.

Another adaptation worth mentioning is the BBC radio series, adapting all five novels. They're very faithful to the books, although heavily cut down so that each story can be told in an hour, and Ian Hart is a great Ripley. (He sounds exactly like Robert Downey Jr with his American accent.) The CD set is hard to find cheap but it can be downloaded from audio book websites. Or file sharing services, if you're into piracy.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks for the great comment and advice. I'll seek out those radio versions ASAP.

You make a good point about Ripley's various states of amorality, but for me it all comes back to guilt. Dickie Greenleaf aside even when Ripley does regret something, he moves on pretty quickly, which is the one thing Hopper doesn't do.

As for Purple Noon yeah as much as I like Delion I can't get past that ending. Oh well...

Once again thanks for the great contribution.