Monday, February 01, 2016

Strangers on a Train

The fourth film in the AFS Wim Wenders retrospective that I went to.

Unlike the previous films directed by Wim Wenders, each released annually and assembled together in his road movie trilogy (1974-1976), Der amerikanische Freund (1977, Wenders) emerges with a tightly structured plot, is steeped significantly in the noir genre, and floats lyrically in cinematic gravitas.

The tone of Der amerikanische Freund is one of foreboding. Like some of the most melodramatic pulp noir crafted by Nick Ray or Sam Fuller the protag is a virtuous everyman who falls onto the slippery path of crime and finds himself doomed to a pitfall of inescapable consequences.

In the opening scene Nicholas Ray plays a counterfeiter colluding in a rooftop rendezvous with TOM RIPLEY (Dennis Hopper), an American business associate on a stopover from his Hamburg home to tie up some loose ends in NYC. Anytime Hopper's on-screen his magnetic effortless cool cowboy-hatted grifter project that there's a lot more to this guy we're gonna find out and boy is he funny and fun to watch.

Next back in Hamburg we meet JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN (Bruno Ganz) in an auction of a painting that places these characters in a fortuitous crossing of each others' paths. We'll learn that Zimmerman plies his trade constructing frames, and may not have much longer to live due to a leukemia diagnosis, putting him in the dilemma of how to deal with its effect on his wife and young son. With Wenders ready to be flexible combining genres in Der amerikanische Freund, all of this dark heavy subject matter gets established only to have a buddy comedy element thrown in. And it all works. Very original too.

Zimmerman is the deadpan straight man foil to Ripley's eccentric loner and the chemistry is enjoyable on a variety of levels. Thus far from what I've seen Wenders' greatest strength is character. And there's so much detail going on with Zimmerman, like his fondness for antique film/photographic novelties, passion for rock 'n' roll, and all of the different choices he makes involving his escalating high stakes embroilment in the film's straightforward plot that empathizing with him is easy and the pith of the story.

And like the best pulp crime Wenders' characters here don't feel unrelatable or like caricature, they feel like people you've met or could meet any night out. He has this humble way of expressing human objectives.

The train sequence in the third act is the high mark suspense-wise of an all around taught narrative. But somehow all still bears the brand of Wenders offbeat humor and appreciation for the requisite spontaneous aspects of life.

Robby Müller finds his compositions in urban jungles this time. The overhead angle on Zimmerman running down the escalators in Hamburg gave me vertigo. And the scenes of Zimmerman sprinting down the tunnel motorway in desperation is as good as noir imagery as evers  been done. Müller also seems as though around this time he's becoming keen on the green spike certain film stocks exhibit when photographing green flo tubes (the lamp on top of Ripley's pool table is the best example) as aesthetic device. But the red curtains and sheets in Ripley's apartment are pretty far out too. And the boat yard outside Zimmerman's Hamburg flat is perfect for the extreme long shot vistas Müller revels in.

The climax sequence of the Cad ambulance and VW bug trip also finds one of Müller's greatest examples of his style and talent.

Der amerikanische Freund is highly enjoyable even though wrought with some darkly fatal quality to it, and even though I can't say why exactly, the maniacal Hopper as Ripley writhing in spasms of release while taking selfies of himself with a Polaroid remind me of the magic of movies.


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