Friday, August 19, 2005

An American Sociopath in Hamburg

I promise to have some new content soon (and some thoughts on something other than movies or music, although those are my twin obsessions). But this is the last of my "heralded" posts from the fray; and I think the film I review is an obscure-ish should-be classic that, if you can find it, you would greatly enjoy.

So here we go:


I had seen my share of Ripleys. Tom Ripleys, that is. Most people see Matt Damon when the think of the eponymous sociopath of "The Talented Mr. Ripley"; but that book had already been adapted once before, in a French film entitled "Purple Noon" in English-speaking countries. The always dashing--and always ice-cold--Alain Delon played Patricia Highsmith's budding sociopath. A more recent adaptation of "Ripley's Game", with John Malkovich in the role of an older, wiser, more self-aware manipulator stumbled straight to DVD without the benefit of wide release.

But like "The Talented Mr. Ripley", "Ripley's Game" also has an earlier film adaptation with an altered title (presumably to justify or offset certain liberties taken with the text). The great German filmmaker Wim Wenders--director of two of my top 10 films ever, "Wings of Desire" and "Paris, Texas"--created, in 1977, an acclaimed thriller based on Patricia Highsmith's "Ripley's Game", the story of a European innocent manipulated into participation in a mob hit by a certain American named Tom Ripley, a suitable master of such games due to an utter lack of anything resembling conscience. In the role of the hapless protagonist, Wenders casts Bruno Ganz, who would later be the sad-eyed angel at the center of Wenders' "Wings of Desire". And Tom Ripley? Well . . . that would be Dennis Hopper.

Alain Delon, Matt Damon, John Malkovich . . . Dennis Hopper. One of these things--as the TV show used to say--is not like the other.

I'll be damned if it doesn't work, though.

Whatever the differences, cinematically, between the various Ripleys, Damon, Malkovich and Delon all had the common virtue (if you can call it that) of being able to pass for an Ivy League playboy, but for a certain cold, dissolute intelligence. They were all the kind of guys in college whom you would have found attractive were they not so dang creepy . . . or else the kind you found extremely attractive precisely because of the apparent "defect". Of the three, Delon was the most convincing sociopath--his Gallic iciness pierced through the celluloid and drew blood. Damon gave the most layered performance, capturing the nervousness of a man who doesn't yet understand that he's necessarily missing anything, who hasn't come to understand how ill-equipped he is for virtue, how uniquely suited to evil. And Malkovich--always a sentimental favorite of mine, despite his affectations--seemed like the perfect future version of Damon's Ripley, socially awkward but happily resigned to it, dressed cheerfully in untucked shirts and beret's like an overgrown college kid who never grew out of wanting to be seen as a thoughtful, sensitive indie beau-hunk (though here I could be projecting). Malkovich's lazy, slightly feminine delivery represents, to me, a compendium of the Ripley ideal as the ultimate failure of east coast, middle-to-upper-class character construction: A poncey, predatory organism that knows all the rules, but not what they mean.

This is not Dennis Hopper's Ripley.

If "Paris, Texas", which would come in 1981, seemed to betray Wenders' belief that America was all about open spaces, cars and pop-culture insignia, it probably came as no surprise to those who'd already seen "The American Friend", in which said friend--Tom Ripley--was a dissolute drifter who happened to drift here, to Hamburg, where he deals in forged art and mumbles a sort of psychological journal into a tape recorder (entries to be replayed while driving at dusk). This being 1977, Hopper is at the peak of his incoherence; and his incoherence beautifully, tragically becomes Ripley's. While Tom is never shown doing any drugs, the notion that he might be lingers over the proceedings as he stagger through the motions in what would appear to be a thick fog of incomprehension. With his semi-ridiculous cowboy hat and lopsided swagger, Hopper's Ripley is nearly as dangerous as Delon's, more unpredictable than Damon's and more recognizably human than Malkovich's.

More than that, though, one has to wonder if Ripley wasn't meant to represent Wenders suspicions about Americans: Drunk on open space, prone to rely on firearms at inappropriate times, steeped in tacky decor (a lit neon "Canada Dry" sign hangs overhead in the center of Ripley's living room), constantly seeking identity.

Considering how little screen time Hopper actually gets, it would be criminal of me to fail to mention Ganz, who's as much a marvel here as in "Wings of Desire". His character--suffering a potentially fatal (and unnamed) blood disorder, devoted to his family and contemptuous of those who treat art as commerce--is the sort of simple, hard-working-yet-passively-cosmopolitan European who serves as a perfect foil, dramatically speaking, to Tom Ripley. Bruno Ganz's deep, dark gazes betray a sense of loss even when he laughs, apologizes or offers assistance. When the character is finally lead to kill, his frustration feels . . . for lack of a better word, very real: As in many of the best Wenders films, pathos is here served somewhat chilly.

Wenders is working with his usual cinematographer, the great Robby Muller; and, true to form, the film is beautiful. Like he did in "Paris, TX", Muller revels in beautiful widescreen compositions, with stretches of open road, skylines and long-distance views of barely-overheard events opening the picture up so wide you feel like you can crawl in.

Like his American independent contemporary, Jim Jarmusch, Wenders plays liberally with pauses and poses, disaffected cool, and a passive nihilism that yearns for romantic release. The warmth and humor this lends to what may otherwise play out as another thriller of double-crosses and identity games is delightful, irksome, plodding and gorgeous. What makes Hopper's Ripley different from others--and Wenders' "The American Friend" different from other Ripley movies--is that the man at the center of all schemes seems to see something better on the horizon. He can't picture his redemption, but he truly hopes it's waiting for him, somewhere on the other side of the next great conspiracy.


Post a Comment

<< Home