'Paris, France'

I first visited Paris as a nineteen year old student, and, revisiting the city at intervals since, every return felt like a reiteration of that initial encounter. Prepared for the city by studying art as a teenager, experienced secondhand through Manet and Degas, and crucially the writing around the Impressionist milieu that I would have read then, and later Atget and the Surrealists, there was an intensity of feeling about being there at that age; some near-tangible unbroken link to the beginnings of modern art, modernity, the avant grade, something that I couldn’t see in London, due to its familiarity perhaps, due to being less mythologised for me at that point.

In Paris last month, apart from the arrival at Gare du Nord, eating at Le Jardin des Pates, and perusing the Porte des Vanves flea market, this sense of reiteration and its relayering of memories was largely avoided. Staying out in the 14th arrondissement, an entirely new part of the city to me, for a short weekend, I took the opportunity to go to La Défense, having been encouraged to do so as a student on that first visit, notably to see the then recently completed Grande Arche, which I hadn’t done. The reason for doing so now was to retrace the steps of the first murder in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend.

The American Friend is one of Wenders’ ‘B-films’ in the alternating sequence that he divides into groups A and B, running from Alice in the Cities (1974) to The State of Things (1982). Wenders describes these definitions in 'Impossible Stories' thus: "In the first group (A) all the films are in black and white [...] In the other group (B) all the films are in colour, and they are based on published novels. The films in group A, on the other hand, are based without exception on ideas of mine." The American Friend was in fact based on an unpublished manuscript by Patricia Highsmith: Wenders had wanted to use source material from Highsmith, but the rights of all her published work had been already sold at the time. The manuscript was published as Ripley's Game, the third of Highsmith’s so-called 'Ripliad'; in adapting the material for The American Friend, Wenders transposed locations from France to Hamburg in Germany. In the novel, Jonathan lives in France, and travels to Hamburg for the tests for his blood condition (in the book, this is explicitly named as myeloid leukaemia in its chronic phase, and although not described as such in the film, the procedures appear to be consistent with the disease); the first killing takes place on the U-Bahn in Hamburg. In the film this is mirrored in the use of the Metro after Jonathan travels to Paris for his tests. In Ripley’s Game there is much more exposition delivered through the character of Reeves Minot (indeed, after being (re)introduced, Ripley disappears from several consecutive early chapters of the book): the reasons for the murders are made clearer. In the film this information could have become weighty dialogue, but this does mean that more has to be simply taken on trust for the viewer. 

The novel opens with the titular character apparently settled in his villa in France with a wife, painting and gardening; Dennis Hopper’s Ripley is very different, a filmic Ripley for the 1970s. Highsmith’s Ripley emerges from the prosperous America of the 1950s: disenfranchised from the post war boom years, he is prepared to access this prosperity by any means. Wenders’ casting of Hopper is a twisted inversion of this, with Hopper’s career reflecting the bright confident 1950s America turned sour two decades on: Hopper, as with his friend James Dean and others of their generation, represented a new type of actor, characterised by emotional honesty, but by the time of The American Friend, Hopper’s credit in Hollywood was largely spent (Wenders reunites Hopper with Nicholas Ray, who had directed Hopper and Dean in Rebel Without A Cause twenty years earlier, playing the painter Derwatt in the New York sequences, a plot strand that belongs in part to the novel before Ripley’s Game). Liliana Cavani, who made the film of Ripley’s Game in 2002 with John Malkovich as Ripley, echoed Highsmith’s initial misgivings about Wenders’ film, specifically with Hopper as Ripley:
"I saw the Wenders film when it came out, but I didn’t like it very much. I don’t think Wenders quite centred on what Highsmith meant. He’d almost fallen in love with this cowboy character. It’s a reflection of those years, the 1970s, German directors discovering American directors and writers."
Liliana Cavani, quoted in Sean McPharlin, 'The American Friend vs. Ripley’s Game’ 
Hopper’s “cowboy in Hamburg” enabled Wenders to play with his attraction to the products of American post-war culture, always underlined by an uneasy ambivalence. As a European director making the novel into a film, this inverts the relationship between Europe and America - in the book, Jonathan, being English, is something of an intermediary between the two. The use of the cowboy hat, a symbol of Wenders’ beloved Westerns (including those by Ray), highlights Ripley’s out-of-place nature, which in the book he is aware of, while making attempts to fit in to his French location. Other symbols of American popular culture are evident in Ripley’s villa in the film, with its pool table and neon signs, commercialised objects representing American modernity. Dennis Hopper (a photographer himself), as Ripley, photographs himself with a Polaroid camera, a very Wenders touch, and talks into a dictaphone with a doubting self-consciousness, entirely lacking from Highsmith’s Ripley. This is not the cultured, European-leaning Ripley of the novel, who makes much of finding an antique harpsichord for his French wife, and commits crimes in order to protect what he has achieved and acquired: that sense of jeopardy is absent with Hopper’s troubled Ripley.

Did Highsmith’s use of Hamburg suggest it as a location to Wim Wenders? One imagines that the majority of the production would by necessity be in Germany for funding reasons, and Hamburg specifically, both from being in the novel, and because Wenders knew it was changing:
“…I often took locations because I knew that were disappearing. In The American Friend, for instance we shot one scene in front of a facade because we’d read in the paper that the whole block was scheduled for demolition.”
Wim Wenders in conversation with Alain Bergala, Written In The West
The changes between the book and the film allow the atmosphere of Hamburg in the late 1970s to pervade the film: the empty spaces from the bombing of the war, the docks, the references to the Reeperbahn, alluded to both by Ripley and the doctor in Paris. By contrast, in the book, Jonathan lives in a small house in Fontainebleau with a garden (indeed, the description of Jonathan gardening is some indication as to his contemplative character); Ripley lives in a large villa nearby. He, Jonathan, is English in the novel, with a different surname, Trevanny, perhaps suggesting Cornish heritage. In the film, this becomes Zimmerman, surely both a slight occupational reference (Zimmermann being the German for carpenter - in both book and film Jonathan is a picture framer) and a nod to Bob Dylan, who Ripley quotes at the very end of the film; in the novel, Jonathan's money concerns are made more explicit in his family’s pinched circumstances - less clear texturally in the film, the setting of Hamburg’s St Pauli district for the Zimmerman’s apartment does imply this visually. Although Ripley also lives in a large villa in the film, he is isolated: in the novel, Ripley has a wife, Heloise, and housekeeper. Ripley uses Jonathan as a pawn in the game of the novel’s title, embarking on a relationship with him to provide Minot with a supposedly unconnected and untraceable assassin. Ripley is the American friend of the title, but, significant to Wenders’ change of Highsmith’s title, he is now defined by his relationship to Jonathan. 
“Motivations aren’t handled well in Ripley’s Game. Wenders, in The American Friend, does a much better job. His mild-mannered picture framer, named Zimmerman, is played by the great Bruno Ganz, and, wisely, Wenders actually makes a real character out of him. In Ripley’s Game he’s presented as a pawn. It’s as though Cavani imagined this was a story about a guy named Ripley. But it’s not. It’s about the man Ripley turns into a killer out of pique. Wenders gets this. Ripley sets the story in motion, and returns toward the end as a major player, but he’s not the focal point. This is Zimmerman/Trevanny’s journey, and the audience has to feel they know him.”
Sean McPharlin, ‘The American Friend vs. Ripley’s Game’

Paris in The American Friend is reduced to Jonathan’s airport pick up by Minot, a hotel room, a car ride, the American Hospital and the Metro. The locations used are far away from familiar cinematic visions of Haussman’s Paris. Wenders chose to depict a post-war International-style Paris, contrasting with the pre-war architectural survivals of the Hamburg locations, and fitting the contemporary European noir of the film. Jonathan’s hotel is on the Seine, but far down in the 15th arrondissement, past the Eiffel Tower, in the Front de Seine district. From the hotel room, there are shots of the 1970s high-rise blocks that define this largely uncharacteristic area of the city. Appropriately too, the version of the Statue of Liberty on the Île aux Cygnes is seen in a couple of shots. Minot talks to Jonathan by telephone from a hotel on the other side of the river. Jonathan’s view largely consists of a construction site with a crane that swings ominously close to the window. There’s also a Wenders joke about television - usually portrayed in his films in a negative light - where Jonathan receives a static electric shock when attempting to turn it on.

Retracing the steps from the film, the sequence leading up to the murder begins with Jonathan and Rudolf walking underneath the elevated section of Line 6 of the Metro, at the end of the Bir-Hakeim bridge from Minot’s hotel. At the Passy station Rudolf and Jonathan take to different ends of the platform for trains going north to Charles de Gaulle-Étoile. Due to the station’s architecture, Jonathan is lit by green fluorescent light against the void of the tunnel entrance, while in a reverse angle shot, Rudolf is seen in natural light further down the platform, providing Wenders with a visual suggestion of Jonathan’s unhealthiness (and proximity to death) against Rudolf, Minot’s robust henchman who is not to carry out the murder. Rudolf, having indicated the victim as they board the train, leaves Jonathan at the next stop. The victim is reading a newspaper, Libération, and, in a detail typical to Wenders, there’s a picture inset and headline reading "Henri Langlois Est Mort" - the co-founder of Cinémathèque Française, who died in January 1977. At Charles de Gaulle-Étoile where Line 6 terminates, there is an extended sequence as Jonathan follows his victim through the tunnels at the interchange with the RER Line A. Jonathan clumsily knocks into a pile of rubbish and cuts his head, adding some business with a handkerchief to stem the blood.

Taking the RER to La Défense rather than the Metro gives Wenders an ideal location for the final succession of shots up to the killing: the broad RER platforms at La Défense have essentially remained the same for forty years: the confined spaces of the Metro open up to a high-roofed interior spanning several tracks. The murder victim stops at a vending machine between the platforms - the vending machines are now clustered around the tapering pillars - and Jonathan sits and waits, carelessly revealing the gun, sticking out of a hole in his coat pocket. Although since replaced, the seats themselves are in the same three-spoke arrangements. Using the vending machines gives the other passengers time to exit the station, leaving Jonathan and his victim alone, emphasised by the space surrounding them.

The victim is shot on an escalator - providing a setting for the body to pile up at its top, the moving steps contrasting with the lifeless body; in the novel, the killing is described as though Jonathan is more competent: it happens in a tightly packed crowd where Jonathan drops the gun as instructed and there is nothing to draw suspicion to him. In the film this would lack much of the extended build up and suspense. After the shooting, Jonathan runs against the direction of travel down the escalator and is then shown fleeing the station across a series of CCTV monitors, emerging above ground at La Défense via a different set of escalators, looking around him, though in a tight enough shot that only some of the architecture is visible. Most of the sections of the Metro and the RER are still very recognisable from the film, but La Défense has changed significantly, although it was just possible to site the last shot in this sequence. After the murder, Jonathan returns to his hotel, and then is seen leaving, ignoring a ringing telephone, and crosses the Bir-Hakeim bridge after dark under the Metro towards Passy once again.

The second murder that Jonathan carries out is filmed very much as it happens in the book: on a train from Munich in the film as in the novel - the excuse for Jonathan being to get another specialist opinion on his disease and more tests. Ripley appears just in time to help Jonathan, garotting the mafia don inside a toilet cubicle and throwing his body and one of the bodyguards from the moving train. The bodyguard survives, explicit in the novel, which has repercussions in the attack which follows on Ripley’s villa, which is not convincingly explained in the film. In anticipation Ripley sends away his wife and housekeeper, and Jonathan helps to defend the villa, with two mafiosi being killed in the process, and their car is burnt with the bodies inside - in a remote rural area several hours drive from Fontainebleau (rather than on a beach). Jonathan’s wife walks in on the scene at Ripley’s villa while the bodies are still there there. This is not the last act of the book however, as this has repercussions when more gangsters are sent to Jonathan’s house with Minot who has been tortured to reveal Jonathan’s identity; after dispatching two men, Jonathan is shot - apparently taking a bullet meant for Ripley outside as they attempt to rush the waiting mafia car - a rather different end than Jonathan dying suddenly of his disease at the wheel of his Volkswagen as he drives away from the burning car with his wife as passenger, leaving Ripley alone by the sea.

Kolker and Beicken describe The American Friend as being “something of a homage to Ray’s 1956 melodrama Bigger Than Life” in its superimposition of a crisis of domesticity onto Jonathan’s existential crisis. In the novel, it’s notable than the mafia hitmen invade both Ripley’s and Jonathan’s domestic spaces - in the film they do not come to the Zimmerman’s apartment, and Hopper’s Ripley lives in a villa that is not a domestic space, emphasised in part by the overtly male symbolic objects that prominently feature in the interiors. Wenders’ omission of the attack on the Zimmerman home, and his stripping Ripley of his wife (and housekeeper), enables Wenders to make a contrast between the two characters, making a clearer focus on Jonathan’s transformative, amoral male friendship with Ripley, who appears unfettered by any domestic claims, a relationship that that constitutes Wenders’ central concern for his story, as against the different dynamics of Highsmith’s novel. This relationship would not be so determined if there was the element of mirroring with the two households that exists in the denouement to Ripley’s Game. Although, along with The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Kolker and Beicken define The American Friend as Wenders’ film with least redemptive potential, Jonathan’s friendship with Ripley does holds out a promise of redemption: 
"Few of these characters are aimless, fewer still express the melodramatics of longing or the ravages of loss. That they are lost is the given of their journeys, as is the uncertainty of how their journeys will end. Their redemption is in the movement itself and the adventures they meet in the course of their odysseys.
By redemption we mean an ability on the part of the character to acknowledge his emotional landscape, traverse it, and perhaps locate a route out - go through a process of recognition, attainment, and change."
Robert Phillip Kolker and Peter Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire

Patricia Highsmith, Ripley’s Game, Vintage, London 1999 (first published 1974)
Robert Phillip Kolker and Peter Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire, Cambridge University Press 1993
Sean McPharlin, ‘The American Friend vs. Ripley’s Game’, http://www.standbyformindcontrol.com/2015/11/the-american-friend-vs-ripleys-game/  
Wim Wenders, The Logic Of Images; Essays and Conversations, Faber and Faber, London 1991
Wim Wenders, Written In The West, Schirmer/Mosel Verlag Munich, 2000, english translation by Michael Hulse.