DVD Review: The American Friend

AmericanFriendDVDSTUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Wim Wenders | CAST: Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kreuzer, Gerard Blain, Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray
RELEASE DATE: 1/12/16 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: Commentary by Wim Wenders and Dennis Hopper, outtakes, new interview with Bruno Ganz, new interview with Wenders, essay by Francine Prose
SPECS: NR | 126 min. | Thriller/Drama | 1.66:1 widescreen | 5.1 surround

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

Wim Wenders’ fiction films have not done very well with the critics or arthouse moviegoers in the last two decades. His documentaries, however — from Buena Vista Social Club to Pina and Salt of the Earth have been universally hailed, and his older, fiction films like this 1977 masterwork have continued to influence a younger generation of filmmakers.

Ostensibly a simple tale of an innocent craftsman (Bruno Ganz, The Marquise of O…) duped into committing a murder by a charmingly crooked American (Dennis Hopper, The American Dreamer), The American Friend is several things at once: a beautifully made thriller, an impeccably acted character study, a tale of three cities (all of which resemble each other, thanks to clever choices by Wenders and his cinematographer Robby Müller, and even a pungent political allegory of how Americans interact with Europeans. Quite a heady brew, but the film is also one of Wenders’ most unabashedly entertaining films, thanks to the dynamic between the two leads.

This relationship is discussed at length in the extras found in this beautifully restored Criterion package. Two of the extras found here were in the previous 2003 Anchor Bay DVD release of the film, but two new supplements were shot especially for this edition.

One of the older supplements is a fascinating audio commentary by the extremely soft-spoken Wenders and the late Dennis Hopper. The pair, who both consider the film among their best, recount a number of great stories about the film and other topics. On the latter front, Hopper relates an anecdote he was told about John Ford giving advice to John Huston on the set of The Maltese Falcon (to the effect that a director should always keep his crew busy while he takes breaks to think). Wenders offers a wonderfully lengthy anecdote about Sam Fuller spending a full day with him in order to convince Wenders to revive a film project he had killed off (which became Alice in the Cities, 1974).

Hopper praises Wenders for finding locations in the three cities in which the picture takes place (Hamburg, Paris and NYC) that all look remarkably similar, instead of taking the usual “scenic” approach to an international thriller. The most entertaining trivia comes from Wenders, though: he decided to exclusively cast his director friends as the gangsters in the film — thus, in addition to Hopper, other crooked characters are played by Gerard Blain, Peter Lilienthal, Jean Eustache, Daniel Schmid and the icons Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray.

Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper in The American Friend

Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper in The American Friend

The other supplement found here that was included in the earlier DVD release is a 35-minutes montage of outtakes, which is for diehards only. The sequences spell out a bit more about the family life of Ganz’s character and his wife’s job as an actress who dubs foreign films into German.

The two newly-made supplements are both very candid interviews. Bruno Ganz shares his thoughts about the film, declaring at first that it made him an actor in “real cinema” (he previously had starred in filmed adaptations of plays).

He describes how he connected with this character by studying his trade (picture framing) for several weeks before shooting began. He also is very honest about how much he disliked Hopper at first, primarily because Ganz was a disciplined theater actor who memorized the whole script word for word, while Hopper was ad-libbing all his lines and behaving erratically.

He then recounts how he got so furious at Hopper during the shoot that he swung on him and the two wound up in a bloody fistfight. The upshot of this incident was that their relationship onscreen and off became, Ganz says, “a more balanced exchange.” Ganz closes out his interview by noting how proud he is of having starred in the film, but how the perfectionist in him sees only his missteps as an actor.

The other new supplement finds Wenders speaking in detail about the film, essentially offering a 37-minute abridged version of the audio commentary he had done with Hopper. He starts out talking about how he yearned to adapt a Patricia Highsmith novel, but all of the rights to her books were already taken. He pursued the author herself and, after a pleasant meeting, she presented him with the manuscript of her latest novel, Ripley’s Game (part of the Tom Ripley series that has spawned several other film and TV adaptations, most notably Purple Noon and The Talented Mr. Ripley).

The most interesting new information from Wenders comes when he talks about — who else? — Hopper. He notes that when Hopper landed in Germany to make the film, he was still “living” his role as the photographer in Apocalypse Now and was “on every drug that man ever invented.”

The producers had to have Hopper admitted to the hospital to deal with ailments he got in the jungle, but their faith in him paid off, as he gave a tremendous performance in the film and was, according to Wenders, on a reduced amount of drugs and booze for the shoot.

Wenders also gives the most detailed description of the sudden brawl between his stars. He declares that he was so fed up with their bickering that he allowed them to exit and fight on the street — at which point the duo apparently adjourned to a bar and wound up arriving very late to the set on the following day, sopping drunk.

Perhaps the quaintest note is struck when Wenders notes that for years afterward Hopper call him his “St. Bernard” for having saved his life by casting him in The American Friend. The director notes wryly that the nickname was flattering, but most likely the result of Hopper’s love of alcohol.


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”