Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) is an easy going Swiss picture framer living in Germany who believes he is dying from a rare blood disease. When he makes the acquaintance of Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an art dealer of dubious reputation, he is faced with a profound moral question. Should he commit a murder for Ripley's underworld associate, Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain) in order to guarantee the lifelong security of his wife Marianne (Liza Kruezer) and son Daniel (Andreas Dedecke)? Based on the novel Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith, Wim Wenders The American Friend is a probing character study of two very different men, one a solitary high stakes adventurer, the other a staid family man grown desperate by his circumstances. Perhaps as a result of an unacknowledged admiration for the other's lifestyle, the business relationship between the two men slowly develops into a reluctant friendship, powerfully illustrating the complexity of the human condition.
Shot in Paris, New York, and Hamburg, Germany, Cinematographer Robby Muller's moody waterfront shots and interior yellow-green color images enhance the mood of paranoia and keep the tension flowing. Cameo appearances by directors Nicholas Ray as a painter who faked his own death and Sam Fuller as an American mobster pay homage to these icons of American cinema. The plot centers around Ripley's revenge for an offhand remark Zimmerman made at an art auction, first spreading the rumor that is health is failing rapidly, then driving him to undertake an act that he would normally consider morally reprehensible. In trying to convince Zimmerman to commit the crime, Raoul offers to provide the services of a Paris hematologist but the lab results are faked and Zimmerman more than ever is convinced that he is going to die. Reluctantly, he commits the murder in a brilliant set piece aboard the Paris Metro, then slowly sinks into a maelstrom of deceit and deception that adds additional twists and turns to an already intricate plot.
Though questions remain unanswered, the strength of the film is not in the plot but in its multi-leveled characterizations and powerful performances. Ganz is fully believable as the decent man tortured by a moral dilemma and Hopper, rebounding from a period of substance abuse, turns in a performance of diabolical intensity as the underworld-connected profiteer. The American Friend avoids the temptation to be simply another film noir thriller or a good versus evil escapade, showing fully realized human beings who have thoughts and feelings we can understand even when we strongly disapprove of their actions. I just have one question. Didn't any one ever tell Zimmerman about life insurance?