Wenders adapting Highsmith

Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz

(These notes were produced for a recent evening class on ‘film adaptations’. I enjoyed working on Wim Wenders’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Ripley’s Game and I thought the film worked well. I’m not sure how many of the class members accepted my arguments, but there was general agreement about the effectiveness of the train sequences.)

Spoiler ahead!

If you haven’t seen the film, it deals with the attempt by Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) to persuade a picture framer Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) to carry out a murder. Ripley’s motive is unclear, but he is able to manipulate Jonathan who has a medical condition which he thinks is terminal. The murder victims are mafiosi.

The Adaptation

Der Amerikanische Freund (West Germany/France 1977) appeared when Wim Wenders was firmly established as one of the leading auteurs of the ‘New German Cinema’. Wenders’ films began to appear in the UK and the US from the mid 1970s and it quickly became apparent that his work was often concerned with American popular culture, particularly Hollywood and popular music. In adapting Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, Wenders was able to explore a fascination with American detective fiction of the more ‘literary’ kind and to indulge his own cinephilia in casting two icons of Hollywood filmmaking, Nick Ray and Sam Fuller. Yet, as Timothy Corrigan points out, the kind of love/hate relationship towards American culture expressed by Wenders runs through many of the films of New German Cinema:

For the New German cinéastes, the America of Hollywood became a pivot for this dual movement, the object of both an imaginative hate and an imaginative love – hated for its post-war invasion of German film culture, yet loved and respected for its proficiency. (Corrigan 1994: 4)

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)
American novelist Patricia Highsmith is one of the ‘most adapted’ writers of her generation. She wrote short stories that were later used in TV shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents but she is best known for the numerous adaptations of her novels, Strangers on a Train (1951) and three ‘Ripley’ novels, The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), Ripley Under Ground (1970) and Ripley’s Game (1974). Her 1962 novel Cry of the Owl was adapted by Claude Chabrol in 1987 and is currently being adapted again for a UK/Germany/French/Canadian production scheduled for release in 2009.

Highsmith was not properly appreciated by the American reading public in her own lifetime. Alcoholic, bisexual and accused of misogyny, Highsmith was seen as a ‘difficult artist’ and her novels, although ostensibly ‘crime fiction’ were treated as ‘too highbrow’ for a mass readership. Possibly more of a problem were her leading characters – often seen as ‘repellent’ and ‘morally ambiguous’. Her biggest readership was in Europe and she moved to live in France and then Switzerland from 1963 until her death.

It isn’t surprising that several of the film adaptations of Highsmith’s work have European origins. Wenders’ Ripley, played by Dennis Hopper, followed the first incarnation by Alain Delon in René Clément’s Plein soleil (France/Italy 1960) (from The Talented Mr Ripley). 1999 saw Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of the same title and in 2002, Italian director Liliana Cavani made another version of Ripley’s Game with John Malkovich as Ripley. In 2005 the Canadian Barry Pepper appeared in Ripley Under Ground directed by fellow Canadian Roger Spottiswoode. The three Ripley novels all have European settings (there were also two later Ripley novels, not yet adapted).

Although often classified as ‘crime fiction’, Highsmith’s novels and stories are mostly not ‘whodunnits’ but ‘whydunnits’, focusing on the psychology of the criminals. Ripley is a potentially charming conman with little in the way of moral scruples, preying on other men with weaknesses for his own gain. Readers/audiences have to struggle to identify with an anti-hero and a ‘good man’ who is weak and can be suborned.

Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, involves two men who meet by chance on a train where one manipulates the other into a pact that involves murdering a person they don’t know for the benefit of the other. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the adaptation was partly scripted by Raymond Chandler, another alcoholic writer who ‘enjoyed’ a difficult relationship with Hollywood – hired to write scripts based on other people’s ideas whilst his own acclaimed novels were adapted by others. Although for the current mass audience, a relatively obscure Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock’s most highly regarded works by cinéphiles (no 100 on IMDB’s Top 250). Wenders was very conscious of the Hitchcock film

“Writing the script . . . for Ripley’s Game, I realised that this kind of story always tends to be done the way Hitchcock did it . . . Of course, I’m trying to avoid creating the same emotions in the audience, but it’s the techniques that keep intruding.” (Wenders quoted in Corrigan 1994: 8)

Wenders and Hollywood
Wenders’ two previous films released in the UK in the 1970s both had American connections. Alice in the Cities (1974) concerns a German photojournalist travelling through America, ostensibly making a documentary report, but in reality lost in reflection until he somehow becomes responsible for a small girl looking for her grandmother back in Germany. Kings of the Road (1976) sees two young men travelling along the border between West and East Germany as one of them mends projectors in local cinemas and discusses the decline of German film culture in the face of Hollywood domination. After he made the Ripley film, Wenders then made a film about Nick Ray before taking a job at Zoetrope for Francis Ford Coppola in 1982 and directing Hammett, a fiction featuring the ‘hardboiled’ detective story writer Dashiel Hammett.

Wenders’ casting of Nick Ray as the painter Durwatt and Sam Fuller as the gangster boss in Der Amerikanische Freund repeats the trick used by Jean-Luc Godard in A bout de souffle (France 1959) when he cast the director, and great fan of American crime cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville in a lead role. Ray was the great American director born into a German family (as Raymond Nicholas Kienzle) in Wisconsin in 1911. His most famous creation was the 1955 film of Rebel Without a Cause – featuring Dennis Hopper in a minor role. Sam Fuller was more of a maverick character whose 1950s/1960s independent films are characterised by energy and bravura camerawork. Fuller, like Ray, became a favourite of the French New Wave directors. French film director Jean Eustache has a minor role in the film and Gérard Blain, although primarily an actor was also a director. Peter Lilienthal and Daniel Schmid were also directors and since Dennis Hopper had directed as well, a total of seven directors featured in the cast.

Adaptation and the crime film
Studying Der Amerikanische Freund gives us the opportunity to explore what Christine Geraghty (2008) has to say about film adaptations. She contends that we need to go beyond a simple test of the ‘fidelity’ of the film to the book and to consider the other influences upon the adapters and the audiences who watch the film. As we noted, Wenders himself was aware of the pressure of comparisons and attempted to steer away from Hitchcock’s ideas about similar stories. This is quite difficult, given the material, as a long train sequence reminds us not only of Strangers on a Train, but also other Hitchcocks such as North by Northwest (1959), The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) as well as other writers’ stories about murder on European trains (e.g. Agatha Christie and Graham Greene).

In his Monthly Film Bulletin review (January 1978), Tom Milne suggets that Wenders and his cinematographer Robby Müller are able to create “an irreproachable film noir ambience”. In a Sight & Sound article (Spring 1978), Karen Jaehne comments on the tight shots and family ‘close-ups’ and the use of primary colours to present Jonathan’s wife and family. These visual motifs work differently than the book’s descriptive passages – as does the metaphor of ‘framing’ of and by Jonathan.

Der Amerikanische Freund follows the novel quite closely. The main changes see a greater focus on Ripley’s American identity and a switch between Paris and Hamburg. In the novel, Ripley and Jonathan live near Paris and travel to Germany. This is reversed in the film. Wenders also ‘borrows’ the forged paintings from the second Ripley novel to provide a sub-plot. Highsmith notes that he only paid for the rights to one novel, but seems to have approved of Wenders overall. However, she preferred Delon as Ripley.

Brilliantly faithful to Highsmith so far as it goes, but really an imaginative transposition in which Tom Ripley becomes the quintessential ‘Wenders Hero’ in search of a human landscape for himself. The film becomes a repository for a film buff’s memories, dreams and nightmares. (Sight & Sound capsule review, Summer 1978)

References and further reading
Timothy Corrigan (1983, revised and expanded 1994) New German Film, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Christine Geraghty (2008) Now A Major Motion Picture: Film Adaptations of Literature and Drama, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield

Roy Stafford, 29/4/08

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