If you're thinking about a man who just wants to lead the good life, it's hard to beat that charming sociopath, Tom Ripley. Conscience is just a vestigial organ in Ripley's psychological anatomy. He enjoys the things money can buy. Just don't get between Ripley and what he wants, or underestimate his sense of due respect. His appreciation of amusing irony can cut your life short, or make it unpleasant, or both.
Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend), a German film by Wim Wenders based on Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, gives us a couple of ironic pleasures of our own. First, if you're into the enjoyment of corrupting a good man by turning him into an assassin, the story is hard to beat. Second, we're able to compare this same story brought to the film by two interesting directors and to observe differences in approach and style. This version by Wenders came out in 1977 and featured Dennis Hopper as Ripley. Ripley's Game, directed by Liliana Cavani, came out in 2002 and featured John Malkovich as Ripley. Both films have merit. Both, unfortunately, sank almost without a trace. Seems a lot of people just don't have a taste for the corruption of the innocent.
Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is a happily married man who is a picture framer. He briefly meets Tom Ripley at an auction but refuses to shake his hand. Ripley's reputation has preceded him. Jonathan has a serious blood disease and then learns he has little time left. He desperately wants to make sure his wife and young son, both of whom he loves deeply, are provided for when he dies. (Dougray Scott plays the same character, renamed Jonathan Trevanny, in Ripley's Game.) Then Zimmermann gets an offer for a great deal of money. All he has to do is murder a bad guy or two. One way or another, Tom Ripley is involved.
And things go wrong. The worst is that Jonathan and Tom develop a kind of friendship that should be morally repugnant if you're a good guy like Jonathan. For all us good guys in the audience, however, the situation is so well set up that all that follows is fascinating, creepy and unnervingly satisfying. Don't count on happy endings.
Both versions of Highsmith's novel are well worth seeing. I'd give the edge to Ripley's Game for two reasons. Wenders approaches the story, in my view, too deliberately and auteurishly. Cavani gets us going more efficiently and keeps up the pace. Since both directors wrote their own screenplays, I think Cavani simply came up with a better-crafted movie. Part of that impression is due to the actor who plays Ripley. Ripley's style, his amusement, his lack of a moral code is central, and John Malkovich is better at this kind of cool approach than Dennis Hopper. Plus, I'll admit, I've never much cared for Hopper's acting or his voice. Bruno Ganz and Dougray Scott are first rate. Ganz was and is one of Germany's most acclaimed actors. Nearly 26 years after The American Friend, Ganz starred as Adolph Hitler in Downfall (Der Untergang). It was a mesmerizing performance. One of Scott's best roles was Tom Jericho in Enigma.
This comparison business comes down to the happy chore, if you're interested, of watching both movies, enjoying them, and observing the differences, especially in the portrayals of Tom Ripley. While Ripley's Game is definitely John Malkovich's movie, The American Friend comes very close to being Bruno Ganz's. You won't be disappointed in either movie; you'll just probably enjoy one a little more than the other.
Wenders also slips in some inside jokes, something that, for me, is akin to condescension. The idea that a clever few are enjoying the thrill of knowing something not available to most is juvenile. Among the pleasures for the insiders is Wenders casting in small parts as crooks a number of sick and aged directors. You may or may not enjoy seeing Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller on their last legs.