Alongside Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, critic-turned-filmmaker Wim Wenders was one of the most important voices to emerge from the New German Cinema of the late 1960s to the 1980s. His road movie trilogy of Alice and the Cities (1974), Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976) explored themes of dislocation and alienation but Wenders never hid a certain warmth toward his characters. How would the director approach one of literature’s most infamous sociopaths?
Wenders had always been interested in Highsmith’s work. ‘Usually in crime fiction characters are shaped by plot and action; they are products not producers’ he wrote in 1977, ‘Her stories spring from the fears, the petty cowardice and tiny acts of misconduct so familiar to everyone that you hardly observe them in yourself.’ Ripley’s Game, the 1971 source novel for The American Friend, was by no means his first choice to adapt. Other books such as The Cry of the Owl (1962) or The Tremor of Forgery (1969) had a more immediate appeal but their film rights had already been sold. When Wenders paid a personal visit to Highsmith, she suggested he take a look at her third Ripley novel.
Ripley’s Game sees the eponymous anti-hero embroil a terminally ill picture framer Jonathan Trevanny in an underworld assassination plot. Wenders felt the novel had great filmic potential but he was not attached to it to the extent that a faithful adaptation felt like the only option. He made several changes, not just to the structure, but also to characters and situations, even incorporating elements from the second Ripley novel Ripley Under Ground (1970). In the lead role, he initially thought of John Cassavetes but ended up casting counter-culture icon Dennis Hopper, who flew to the set from the Philippines somewhat worse for wear – understandable given that he had spent several weeks filming opposite Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).