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DVD Review: The American Friend

By Glenn Abel

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Friend art Dennis Hopper, the actor, and Nicholas Ray, the director, had crossed paths before. In 1955. When Hopper played a punk kid in "Rebel Without a Cause," Ray's melodrama about teen alienation that starred James Dean.

Down the road, both found themselves blackballed from movies. Ray's fall came in 1963 as he infamously had to abandon "55 Days in Peking." Actor-director Hopper blew his goodwill from "Easy Rider" on 1970's incoherent "The Last Movie." Both men were legends of substance abuse and bad craziness.

Two decades later, they were reunited as actors in "The American Friend," Wim Wenders' multinational film noir about paranoia, fraud and murder.

The 1977 movie changed the outcasts' lives in profound ways: Hopper began his heroic return from exile, and the terminally ill Ray would find final redemption of a sort with Wenders. In the process, they helped create a classic thriller that reached back to Ray's famous films of the 1950s and ahead to Hopper's chilling work in "Blue Velvet."

Hopper, who's worked on nearly 200 films, calls "Friend" "one of the best movies I've ever been in." Wenders, he says simply, "is a great master." Audiences getting their first look at the film on DVD probably will agree.

Anchor Bay has released "Friend" and the fateful Wenders-Ray collaboration "Lightning Over Water" as part of its Wim Wenders Collection (both retail for $24.98). Both include recent commentary from the German director, with Hopper contributing to the "Friend" talk. The DVDs are in widescreen (1.77:1) with acceptable images and audio. "Friend" is in German, English and French; "Lightning" is in English.

For the "Friend" project, Wenders talked novelist Patricia Highsmith ("Strangers on a Train") into entrusting him with her "Ripley's Game" before it was published in 1974. It was one of her four books about amoral antihero Tom Ripley (another was "The Talented Mr. Ripley," made into a film in 1999.)

Wenders found Highsmith's psychotic con man "a total mystery" and was stumped by the casting. "I'm not gifted in showing bad guys," Wenders recalls. (He recruited fellow directors to play the film's gangsters, including his teacher, Samuel Fuller.)

Wenders initially approached director-actor John Cassavetes to play Ripley. Cassavetes recommended the notorious Hopper. (Highsmith wasn't pleased: "That's not Ripley!" the writer complained as she first saw the cowboy hat-wearing Hopper onscreen.)

Hiring Hopper "was like lobbing a hand grenade" into the script, Wenders admits.

Infused with the spirit of James Dean and fresh out of the jungles of "Apocalypse Now," Hopper proceeded to guide Wenders deep into the heart of improvisation. Scenes were rewritten as they were shot; Hopper made up most of his own dialogue. "It felt like I only had to dream it up and it was happening," Wenders says.

Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who went on to star in Wenders' "Wings of Desire," played a German art framer who falls under Ripley's deadly spell. The detail-obsessed Ganz took an immediate dislike to Hopper and his improvisations. The actors worked it out with a drunken fistfight. Their curious chemistry gives "Friend" much of its heart and punch.

The movie was shot in Paris, New York and Hamburg, Germany. "We tried to make it all look like one big place," Wenders says. The visual scheme was based on Edward Hopper's paintings. But cinematographer Robby Muller often employed sickly yellow-greenish lights for interior shots, heightening the sense of paranoia. The DVD's deleted scenes (mostly "leftovers," Wenders admits) include more of Muller's stunning shots of the Hamburg harbor.

Ray, who played a famous painter pretending to be dead, already was sick with the cancer that would kill him. Nonetheless, the once-elegant director "was always at the top of his game -- or pretending to be," Wenders says.

A few years later, as the cancer closed in on Ray, he told his friend Wenders that his one desire was to make another movie. It would be "Lightning Over Water."

Wenders says Ray was "still suffering from the fact that for most of his film career he was considered someone who abandoned his last film -- someone who had to leave Hollywood dishonorably. He wanted to correct that image."

The concept was to continue the story of Ray's painter in "Friend." Ray and Wenders would switch off directing. But as Ray's health deteriorated, "Lightning" turned into a documentary about Ray's last days. The mission was to keep Ray busy and help him face death.

"I never went through anything remotely like it," Wenders says. "And I don't think there is another film like it."

Ray demanded that the camera show all. Wenders and his collaborators debated endlessly if they should continue filming. They did, right up to the wake on a Chinese junk. "Nick wanted this film to exist," Wenders says.

Most of "Lightning" was shot at Ray's loft, in the shadow of the World Trade Center. The movie is a challenging mix of acting and reality, in which Ray and Wenders are the main figures, supported by Ray's inner circle and the film crew. Wenders' commentary helps viewers sort out what is staged and what is nonfiction.

Ray's assistant in the film, Tom Farrell, shot much of the goings-on with a new-fangled portable VHS recorder. Wenders decided to make use of Farrell's shaky tapes, blending them with his own work. He saw the grainy images as "the cancer inside the film."

It's to Wenders' credit that "Lightning" plays like a tribute to Ray's spirit, not an obituary. It's essential for admirers of either director.

The DVD includes a 38-minute VHS video of Ray's lecture at Vassar that provides the film's road trip. Ray discusses his techniques used in such films as "The Lusty Men" (1952) and "Johnny Guitar" (1954).

Note: This "Lightning" is Wenders' re-edited 1982 version of the film, not the original shown at Cannes in 1980.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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