Sunday, 30 September 2012

THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977)


This post reveals the plot of the film.

I saw this recently, and also remembered the first time I saw it at the NFT. At the time, I compared it to Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, another Patricia Highsmith adaptation. I would still classify this as a suspense/crime picture, as it adheres to established narrative and allows us to wait for an answer to the many questions the story asks us: will Jonathan (the protagonist) die sooner or later than expected? Will he receive the $97,000 for shooting the man in the subway? What shall he tell his wife if he receives the money, and most intriguing of all, why is Tom Ripley so interested in him?

We wait for answers. I think Wim Wenders succeeds in keeping our interest both in the process of resolving the suspenseful story and in our empathy towards Jonathan. Wenders plays with delaying our expectation throughout the film, until the sense of equilibrium is regained, and something more meaningful is communicated to us, which seems to exist outside of the boundaries of the plot.

The story begins with Jonathan meeting the gangster, Minot, and eventually involves him with Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper). Jonathan eventually accepts the gangsters’ offer of employment as a hired killer. The crisis develops in a strangely stunted manner, all the while heightened by details of mood. These are particularly oppressive views of the environment, focussing on the rootless nature of the two main characters who appear to be travelling aimlessly (Ripley often travels to and from Europe to America).

There is a review from Pauline Kael, picking up on these instances as, “overdosing in mood… losing more in clarity than Wenders gains in depth.” She argues that plot points are “bobbled, and when there’s mayhem it isn’t clear who the participants are or what the outcome is.” When compared to classical models of suspense there is a somewhat troubling ambiguity, but I would argue that Wenders’ strategy is successful in disclosing enough information to allow us to identify with Jonathan’s muddled and unassuming point of view. When we see him for the first time, his expression is blank, sleepy. It is fitting with the general ambience of real life, this ambivalent atmosphere towards the inevitable violence and death which seems to threaten to emerge throughout the film.

Going back to the first killing in the film in the metro: we expect Jonathan to be captured. He bungles the shooting by running away from the scene having been told by Minot to stay put and try to blend in with the crowd. Then he thoughtlessly allows himself to be framed by the security camera monitors. This sequence seems to reiterate the overall fear of being identified on the mission and also establishes Jonathan’s anonymity. The camera pulls back from the CCTV monitors to reveal that there is no security operator viewing the scene. It’s an important point, showing that law and order will not be allowed to intrude on this story.

Information about Jonathan’s illness is not disclosed until much later in the film, after the dramatic setting is established, and then it’s through word of mouth only. The doctor’s report on Jonathan’s test engages us, but our level of involvement is unfocussed. It’s a way of rendering dramatic information un-dramatic, and it is more prevalent in recent cinema, I believe: I can think of Alejandro Iñárritu’s BIUTIFUL as an example of this plot distancing strategy, seemingly foregrounding on the environmental details above everything else. I think it is not as estranging as Pauline Kael suggests – Jonathan’s point of view as he waits for the first victim on the train does not obey the over-the-shoulder/shadowing of the main character we are used to in traditional suspense cinema, but it is more in keeping with Argento’s style which creates an overwhelming sense of the optical point of view.

As the film progresses, the thrust of the story seems to be more concerned about Jonathan’s survival and the consequences of the botched second killing – a bodyguard is killed alongside the intended victim. As they wait for a rebuke against the killings, Ripley and Jonathan find the pornographer-criminals’ ambulance parked near Ripley’s large country house. Then they are inexplicably seen carrying an unidentified bandaged man. Then there is a strange woman whose motives for leaving the bandaged man is not clearly explained, nor is the presence of the ambulance, nor is the arrival of Jonathan’s troubled wife in the car. I think there is a lack of causal information at these points which could have helped us to reason with the character’s behaviour, such as Ripley’s drive to the beach to “finish everything” by blowing up the ambulance containing the bodies.

Comparing this adaptation to Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is informative at this point to see how Wenders departs from the classic suspense format. Both novels were written by Patricia Highsmith (THE AMERICAN FRIEND is an adaptation of RIPLEY’S GAME). I think Wenders approach is the realistic, documentary style, while Hitchcock is of course, tightly structured and motivated by the narrative.

Wenders manages to stay close to the themes of the book, we feel closely embroiled in the repercussions of Jonathan’s crimes and his developing illness. The use of time limitations is effective here: Jonathan seeks confirmation of the doctor’s report on his blood disease. Hitchcock, however, rarely deviates from the demands of the narrative drive. There are few extraneous details in STRANGER ON A TRAIN, few unwanted details. Motivations and intentions are economically and expertly delineated in Hitchcock’s film: Robert Walker’s highly emotional performance reflects his exhaustion after a murder; his point of view defines his feelings as he stalks a victim through the fairground. Hitchcock is remarkable for his ability to incorporate psychic states of mind through costume, framing, characters within spaces, actions within spaces, while Wender’s observation of Jonathan follows his mannerisms, his contradictions, his general authenticity without clarifying his references as Hitchcock does. Ripley’s apparent motivation for using Jonathan for the contract killing is only referred to at the end of the film when he admits to feeling spurned when Jonathan first met him, when he addressed him with an impolite, “I’ve heard of you.”

Wenders appears to be more interested in documenting the character habits of Jonathan and Ripley, and not really as an observation understood primarily within the bounds of the narrative. He expands upon concepts of identity by observing the physical reality of his main characters and their environment.

Ripley: “I know less and less who I am, or who anybody is.”

I think Wenders is less successful in accommodating the mass audience’s tastes and expectations but I don’t think his ‘highbrow’ method of storytelling is unsuitable or uncommunicative. He adheres to the broader narrative structure, but also infers greater psychological meanings in the scenes described above where motivations are apparently unclear and characters somehow disconnected. In the NFT programme notes for the screening I attended, Wenders sums up this approach to the overall mood of the film:

“Highsmith’s stories originate from small fears, petty acts of cowardice, little faults that everyone knows so well they rarely notice in themselves… they don’t analyse or explain. There are only particulars and individuals, no generalisations.”

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