Thursday 26 June 2014

Ripley's Game and The American Friend: the Films and the Book (by Patricia Highsmith)

To round off what's become quite a protracted run of posts on Patricia Highsmith – links to previous missives in the run can be found at the bottom of this post, should anyone be remotely interested – I thought I'd take a look at two different film adaptations of my favourite of Highsmith's novels – indeed my favourite novel full stop: the third Tom Ripley novel, Ripley's Game (1974). One of those film adaptations, the eponymous 2002 version, directed by Liliana Cavani, I've seen a few times over the years (and watched again recently); the other, Wim WendersThe American Friend (1977), I only saw for the first time last week. To be honest I was in two minds as to whether or not to post anything about either of them – there are doubtless plenty of reviews already available online. But what there doesn't seem to be so much of is comparison between the two and to the source text, and so here, for what they're worth, are some notes and thoughts along those lines.

For a start, though derived from the same source and following essentially the same story, The American Friend and Ripley's Game are very different films – the former a, for want of a better term, arthouse film, the latter I guess an old school Euro-thriller, albeit one directed by ostensibly an arthouse director (Cavani's credits include 1974's The Night Porter). I suppose one illustration of this might be how each film handles the pivotal scene early on where Jonathan Trevanny – in the book and in Cavani's film; in Wenders' film he's Jonathan Zimmerman – unwittingly makes a nemesis of Tom Ripley. Cavani correctly locates this scene in Jonathan's kitchen during a party, but then embellishes it, depicting a drunken Jonathan – played by Dougray Scott – deriding Tom's lack of taste to a cabal of cackling cronies, only for Tom – John Malkovich – to overhear and icily challenge him. Wenders relocates the scene to an auction room, but has Bruno Ganz as Jonathan underplay the offhand slight in the same fashion as the novel: upon being introduced to Tom – played by Dennis Hopper – Jonathan ignores Tom's proffered hand and mutters, "Oh yes, I've heard of you."

On the commentary track on the DVD of The American Friend Wim Wenders remarks of this scene, "That's what I love about Patricia Highsmith, to invent a whole story out of such a little incident: a man's pride is hurt." It's clear that Wenders is something of a fan of Highsmith, but Ripley's Game wasn't his first choice of her novels to adapt. His favourite Highsmith novel was The Cry of the Owl (1962), but the film rights to that book weren't available – and nor were the rights to his second favourite Highsmith novel, The Tremor of Forgery (1969), or his third favourite, or fourth, and so on. Eventually he met Highsmith and she explained that the only novel of hers where the rights were still available was the one she had just finished, because no one else had read it yet. She then pulled the manuscript of Ripley's Game out of her bag.

Cavani was also a Highsmith fan prior to filming her version of the book – "I love Patricia Highsmith and have read most of her books," she told an audience at the Boston International Festival of Women's Film in 2003 – but unlike Wenders she didn't actively pursue a Highsmith novel herself; Ripley's Game was brought to her by producer Ileen Maisel. What Cavani isn't a fan of, however, is Wenders' film. She told the film critic Gerald Peary: "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."

Highsmith herself wasn't exactly enamoured of Dennis Hopper's Stetson-wearing Ripley either – at least not at first; after an initially adverse reaction to The American Friend she later wrote to Wenders and admitted that she'd been wrong, even to the extent that she thought Hopper had captured the essence of Ripley, the soul of the character. I can kind of see what she means in some scenes, especially the first encounter between Tom and Jonathan in the latter's picture-framing shop: for me that's where Hopper is closest to the Ripley of the page – his reserved nature, the way he smiles at Jonathan. It's no coincidence that that was actually the first scene Hopper shot in the film: in those early days of the production he was sticking closest to the Tom of the novel and of Wenders' original script; thereafter his performance became more improvisational, while Wenders for his part was rewriting daily, the two striving to reach the "truth" of the character as they saw him.

According to Liliana Cavani there was plenty of rewriting on Ripley's Game too – she worked extensively on the script with the screenwriter, Charles McKeown – but at least in terms of that script there was apparently no improvisation on the part of Malkovich. How much of his performance was down to the writing, the direction or his own choices I couldn't say, but certainly Tom's malevolence is brought to the fore, Malkovich casually issuing threats to all and sundry (something the Tom of the books would never do) and even at one point providing (to Jonathan) a pithy summary of his character as the filmmakers saw him: "I'm a creation. A gifted improviser. I lack your conscience and, when I was young, that troubled me. It no longer does. I don't worry about being caught because I don't think anyone is watching."

A creation... a gifted improviser... lack of conscience: all this sounds like the Tom of the books, but what is lacking in Malkovich's portrayal is Tom's unexpected gregariousness and warmth. In the Ripliad people genuinely seem to like Tom; in Ripley's Game (the film) only his wife does, although arguably Jonathan warms to him. It's hard to imagine anyone else doing so though – and almost as hard to imagine anyone warming to Dennis Hopper's Tom: a loner with a penchant for recording his own rambling thoughts on dictaphone and reel-to-reel, living in a dilapidated city mansion lit by neon signs and flickering TV screens. Though again Jonathan does warm to Tom, even more so than in Cavani's version.

On the commentary track for The American Friend Wenders notes that he originally thought of John Cassavetes for the role of Ripley, which would have been interesting. In the event Cassavetes passed and suggested Hopper instead – another film actor who also directed. And in fact Wenders cast a number of film actor-directors and directors in the movie, all of them playing ne'er-do-wells of one type or another. The French actor-director Gérard Blain plays Tom's criminal associate Raoul Minot (Reeves Minot in the Ripliad); Sam Fuller, of Shock Corridor fame, plays the gangster Jonathan is supposed to murder on the train (with Tom's assistance); and Nicholas Ray plays Derwatt, the painter-forger Tom is in league with.

Ripliad enthusiasts might raise an eyebrow at that last one, because Derwatt is actually a character from the previous Tom Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground. He's not a forger in that novel either; he's a deceased painter who is forged by another painter, Bernard Tufts. I was a little surprised when I learned prior to watching The American Friend that Wenders had stapled some of the art forgery elements of Ripley Under Ground onto Ripley's Game – why would he do such a thing? – but his casting of his friend Nicholas Ray provides the explanation. Wenders reveals on the American Friend commentary track that Ray was dying – he finally passed away in 1979 – and that as a consequence Wenders wanted to get Ray into his film somehow. Unfortunately there was no part suitable for Ray, until Wenders thought of bringing Derwatt into the story.

Curiously, Cavani's Ripley's Game also introduces elements of art forgery: the film opens with Tom and Reeves – the latter played with sweary East End barrow-boy abandon by Ray Winstone, nothing like the Reeves of the books but immensely enjoyable nonetheless – selling forged paintings in Berlin, the funds from which Tom uses to buy a palatial villa in Italy – one which in truth is no closer to the more modest Belle Ombre of the books than Dennis Hopper's weird mansion in The American Friend. Jonathan lives in quite a nice gaff in the Ripley's Game film too, which on his wages I found slightly hard to believe, until I recalled how much some of the picture framers around Lewes charge.

Bruno Ganz's Jonathan, on the other hand, lives with his family adjacent to Hamburg's docks (like Cavani Wenders relocates the story from the novels' rural France) in a cramped apartment, one more befitting his evidently modest means. For me, Ganz gives the performance of either film. He's a more believable Jonathan than Dougray Scott for sure, but in his quiet and unassuming way he also outshines Dennis Hopper's chaotic turn in The American Friend and John Malkovich's dominating performance in Ripley's Game. I would say he's worth the price of admission alone, but The American Friend has much to recommend it besides, as does Ripley's Game, not least the aforementioned train sequence, which in both films is terrifically handled: thrilling, gruesome, darkly comic, and arresting in the moment, replicated in each film, where Jonathan tests the garrotte on himself. In general I don't think you could class either film as an especially faithful adaptation of the source material, but the gusto with which they both attack the same vital sequence speaks volumes to the passion of the filmmakers for their respective projects.

NB: German American Friend poster by Sickert filched from Mean Sheets.

Previous Patricia Highsmith posts in this run: 

Patricia Highsmith's Short Stories: Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, Signed Inscribed Association First Edition

Patricia Highsmith's Short Stories: The Black House, Signed Inscribed Association First Edition with Handwritten Letter

Donald E. Westlake on Patricia Highsmith and Ripley Under Ground (the Film)

A Suspension of Mercy: Book Review

Ripley's Game: 1989 Uniform Edition

Those Who Walk Away: Book Review


  1. Very nice "compare and contrast." I remember after seeing the Caviani film that it seemed to stick a little more closely to the plot of the book, but I have to admit that I have a very sentimental place in my heart for all of Wenders' arthouse liberties, especially the unusual cameos. I definitely agree that Ganz is very compelling (and so is Lisa Kreuzer as his wife); the family life is a powerful element of the film. Another thing that I think worked very well in the Wenders film is, as you suggested, the chemistry between Ganz and Hopper. Their characters seem to genuinely like each other by the end, just as, improbably, Tom and Jonathan end up liking each other.

  2. While he's a weird choice for Ripley, Hopper does a neat job, and I like the film on its own. If I knew nothing about the book, I think I'd like it even more. The garroting scene is among my favorites.

  3. Ta for the comments, both. Kelly, I'm with you on knowing the book: if I hadn't read it before seeing The American Friend (and knew nothing about Tom Ripley) I think I too would appreciate the film more on its own merits.

  4. The American Friend got a terrific Criterion release last month, and I'm thrilled that the two best Ripley adaptations now have such classy Blu-ray editions. (Purple Noon got a Criterion in 2012.) I'd like to see Ripley's Game on Blu-ray, since I do like it as a movie even though it annoys me as an adaptation. The DVD is fine but lacks any extras; a commentary with the director would be lovely.

    And it would certainly be nice if Ripley Under Ground were to finally get a release of some kind. Here we are eleven years later and the film still hasn't gotten a North American release of any kind, and I'm not resorting to piracy or buying a region-free player just so I can import an Italian DVD. You'd think they would at least release a digital version, something, anything. Even if the film is as mediocre as I've heard, it would be nice to simply be able to see the thing.

    1. I still haven't seen Purple Noon, so that's something I need to finally do this year. Shame you can't see Ripley Under Ground; it really isn't that great, but there's enough of interest for a Ripley enthusiast to make it worth watching.

      Anyone reading this able to help Craig out?

  5. I went ahead and ordered one of those Italian DVDs from Amazon Marketplace since new copies are selling cheap, under $10. I forgot all about my laptop, which I know can play PAL format DVDs with the media player I use, and there are other programs I can download if this one can't play other regions. (The only PAL disc I've tested is region-free; the Ripley Under Ground disc is Region 2.) Anyway, I appreciate your soliciting help, but I'm sure this is the only way. Cheers ;)

    1. Well my request for assistance was met with a resounding silence anyway! Let me know what you make of the film.