Tuesday, January 12, 2016
A Cowboy in Hamburg
No two filmmakers seem able to agree on how to portray Tom Ripley, the killer Patricia Highsmith invented for her 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley and who she continued to write about in four more novels, the last, Ripley Under Water, coming in 1991, four years before her death. I've read two of them: The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley's Game, the third in the series. These happen to be the two novels that have twice each been adapted into films. In the novels, Ripley begins as a young man driven to murder by desperation and jealousy and self-hatred, along the way discovering that taking a human life does not haunt his conscience in the way he knows it's supposed to. By the time of Ripley's Game, Highsmith had turned him into a kind of urbane white-collar criminal, happily married to a woman named Heloise (his latent homosexuality, clear in the 1955 novel, having perhaps been suppressed, or now manifesting itself into an alien sort of sexually active asexuality), who murders if he thinks he has to, though he claims to detest the act.
As I write this, I'm watching, for the second time, Liliana Cavani's 2002 film Ripley's Game, which stars, almost inevitably, John Malkovich as Ripley. I remember when I first saw this movie, which was many years ago and long before I'd read anything at all by Highsmith, I remarked to my wife, the two of us being fans of Anthony Minghella's well-regarded 1999 film of The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring the less-inevitable Matt Damon, that it was impossible to imagine Damon's Ripley growing up to be Malkovich's Ripley. I also believed at the time that Malkovich and Cavani's take on the character, who they saw as a cold-eyed monster who felt no emotions other than avarice, arrogance, and rage, must be closer to Highsmith, though I loved what Minghella and Damon had done. Which, by the way, was to turn him into a frightened boy who felt guilt but "earned our sympathy" by having been mistreated by at least two of his three (only two in the novel, which is interesting, given the portrayal) victims. However, I've grown to dislike both Cavani's and Minghella's films. This is probably unfair to Cavani, given how much attention I'm paying too it, but, for instance, the opening of the Cavani film is ludicrous -- it depicts Ripley as a man who can't wait to kill someone, who is reckless and stupid (whether or not the film shows that recklessness blowing up in his face). It's a film that sees Ripley as someone whose intellect is so dull that he, and the film, thinks it's interesting to use Icarus as a metaphor. But despite the fairly low profile of this Ripley's Game, one does get the sense that this is the version of Ripley that makes sense to most people. He's close enough to Hannibal Lecter as to make no difference.
The first Ripley film was Rene Clement's Purple Noon, an adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley from 1960. That film plays merry hell with Highsmith's plot, but by telling us so little about how Tom Ripley (played here by Alain Delon, who in retrospect seems as inevitable as Malkovich) thinks that the fundamental mystery of the character and of Highsmith's conception of him is retained. He's not "movie" mysterious, like Malkovich -- he's genuinely inexplicable. In fact, Purple Noon might have been the best Ripley film if not for Wim Wenders, who in 1977 first adapted Ripley's Game into the film The American Friend, which has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, and which, to me, counts as one of the two or three greatest crime films of the post-noir era.
The plot of Ripley's Game (and The American Friend) should probably be briefly described, because it's a corker, and pretty vital to understanding, or failing to understand, Tom Ripley. Ripley is at a party, where he meets a picture framer named Jonathan. Jonathan treats Ripley with some small amount of rudeness, and so when later on one of Ripley's criminal associates comes to him looking for a recommendation for somebody to carry out a murder of a member of the Mafia, Ripley gives him Jonathan's name. He does this as revenge. As a means of putting Jonathan on the hook, and make the offer of money to kill a man at least somewhat enticing, Ripley, who has learned that Jonathan has leukemia, starts a rumor that Jonathan is close to death. Jonathan, upon learning that this rumor is out there, becomes understandably paranoid that it might be true. Then the offer to kill a man comes his way. "You can leave behind something for your family." Etc. All because Ripley was offended. If it helps any, Ripley will come to feel bad about this.
So, to The American Friend. The action is shifted from mostly France, with long detours into Germany, to Germany exclusively. Jonathan Trevanny, Highsmith's Englishman, becomes Jonathan Zimmerman, played here by Bruno Ganz, who has perhaps never been better in his life. And Ripley is play by Dennis Hopper, who somehow manages to be simultaneously horribly miscast and perfect for the role. It's the damnedest thing. Hopper, wearing a cowboy hat and jeans, living in a hotel, unmarried, drinking alone, smart but by no means urbane or erudite, somehow achieves peak Ripley-ness by playing Ripley as a man Highsmith's Ripley would never associate with.
There's an enormous amount going on in Wenders' film, including a long game of post-modern fiddling about with Hollywood genre films, of the kind so many European filmmakers cut their teeth on and revered, at the same time they twisted and commented on it. And it's not just noir -- it's Westerns, too. I mean, look at how Hopper dresses. Wenders' Ripley could be read, and was probably intended to be, a critique of America itself -- what he would regard as its arrogance and violence, for starters, and its brutal Western "advancement" (emphasis Wenders', in my head, though I'm making it up). Needless to say, that side of The American Friend (that's an ingenious title though) doesn't interest me at all, but it's there for anyone looking for it. When considering this swirl of war (quite obliquely, but if you've made the aforementioned connections then war's gonna be in there), crime films, and the Western, casting Sam Fuller as a mobster almost seems to hit the nail too squarely. Casting Nicholas Ray as a painter seems like the most natural thing in the world.
But The American Friend isn't some tedious exercise in the act of referencing things. It is as exquisitely and precise a piece of sincere genre filmmaking as I've ever seen. The two murder scenes, both set around trains and train stations but without remotely repeating any visual or spatial ideas, are so classically designed as to make art out of efficiency. It's that strange Hawksian, Fordian alchemy of telling a story so clearly that it becomes actual poetry.
At the same time, there's Hopper, bringing a wild 70s danger, even horror, to it all. That his Ripley (and this does come from Highsmith) actually feels guilt for what he's put this poor dying man through -- and Jonathan is dying, just not as fast as Ripley's rumor suggests -- is part of that horror. Who is he? And if Ripley is in possession of an otherworldly kind of psychology, Jonathan's is all too understandable. In fact, it's tempting to give the ultimate credit for the triumph of The American Friend not to Hopper, or even to Wenders, but to Bruno Ganz. As in Highsmith's novel, Wenders' film spends a lot of time with Jonathan, going to doctors for tests and second opinions (part of the enticement to commit murder is that these new tests will be paid for by Ripley's associate). In these scenes, Ganz isn't acting in a crime film -- he's acting in a film about a man who wants to hear the best version of terrible news as a dying man can hope for. You can know what's coming, but as long as you feel okay and your test results aren't too bad, you can keep going. But as soon as those tests start to change... Ganz, of course, rejects any kind of ostentatious, or anything even remotely "big," even when it would have been justifiable. It's only in his eyes, and in the pressure in his face that is the result of trying to not show anything.
The American Friend is a film that, for all that also, finally, succumbs to Hopper. Not just to Hopper, but also to Highsmith, because let's face it, this story is kind of insane. And not just to Hopper and Highsmith, but to Ripley. Because it's all perfectly insane. Classically, precisely, reasonably, coldly insane. It's a masterpiece.