What’s Wrong with a Cowboy in Hamburg? In Search of an American Friend

illustration by Rachel Merrill

It’s a certain kind of person who owns a pool table. At some point before the events of The American Friend, Tom Ripley compared prices, examined felts, and took measurements. He then bought a triangle rack, a packet of chalk, and loaded an armful of cue sticks into the back of his Ford Thunderbird. A pool table, as an object, implies popularity. Something to be played with others. A room-sized trophy, proof of friends waiting in the wings. Ripley installed a rec room in his crumbling mansion—complete with neon lighting and a vintage Canada Dry sign—but despite its promise, the pool table spends most of its screen time unused and draped in an ash-stained tarp.

Ripley, played with tired menace by Dennis Hopper, is the titular friend in Wim Wenders’s 1977 neo-noir thriller. The pool table may be one aspect of his identity, but he has others. A stressed denim jacket. Packs of Marlboros. A t-shirt emblazoned with the image of a Native American. Various bits of Americana, all of which seem out of place in the film’s West German locales.

“Do you wear that hat in Hamburg?” a New York acquaintance asks early in the film, frowning as Ripley sets an enormous Stetson on his head.

“What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Ripley asks with a grin, a laugh. This was the reaction he’d pictured when he bought the hat in a secondhand shop on West 47th Street. 

But isn’t he hurt a bit, as well? Hadn’t some part of Ripley hoped past the irony of his purchase? That a hat so large, so prominently displayed, might elicit snickers, even disdain, from the uninitiated but still serve as a signal, a nostalgic nod to the aspirations of like-minded men? Which is to say, his potential confidants, pals, amigos. His potential friends.

The American Friend isn’t a Western in the strictest sense, but the obsession of its central antagonist with “the cowboy,” that myth of masculine exceptionalism, is both an attempt to claw his way out of loneliness, and a core reason for why he remains, in fact, so achingly alone.

One Foot In the Grave

It’s easy to forget that The American Friend is a Tom Ripley story, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s series of novels. The books center on a seductive con man who uses his criminal talents to enjoy a life of luxury. The sunny beaches of the Italian Riviera, the opulent French villa he calls home, tailored clothes, wine cellars—these glamorous elements of Ripley’s lifestyle are part of the thrill, part of the mask he wears to hide his damaged self. 

In this sense, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (1960), starring Alain Delon, and Anthony Minghella’s, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), starring Matt Damon, are more straightforward adaptations. Beautiful people committing ugly deeds. But The American Friend—based on Ripley’s Game, Highsmith’s third novel in the series—does away with this glamorous veneer entirely. The allure of mid-century Italy is traded for the industrial tones of a divided Germany. Dennis Hopper, still very much a symbol of the American counterculture, was a radically different interpretation of Tom Ripley

Our sad, strange Ripley meets our protagonist, Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), at an art auction in Hamburg. Ripley is there as part of a scheme with a New York painter to drive up bids on forgeries, while Zimmerman is the auction house’s resident picture framer. Zimmermann quietly expresses doubts about a painting’s authenticity and Ripley overhears, knows the suspicions to be correct, and becomes immediately intrigued with Zimmermann. Game respecting game. A potential beer buddy for the lonely cowboy.

Zimmermann is lonely as well, but for very different reasons. He has a wife and young son, but also bears the weight of a terminal disease. He’s unable to share his fears about death and unwilling to burden his loved ones with concerns about their future. He spends his days alone in his shop, working to provide for the family he will leave behind. 

If Ripley’s isolation is represented by his empty mansion on the hill, then Zimmermann’s is typified by his apartment building near the harbor; a shared space, but one which stands alone on a street corner next to an empty lot, likely slated for demolition in a few years.

Lonely as he may be, Zimmermann is uninterested in Tom. When Ripley goes to shake his hand after the auction, Zimmermann refuses. “I’ve heard of you,” he says dismissively, thus setting the movie in motion.

Ripley, hurt, wonders if he can corrupt a morally superior family man. He spitefully suggests Zimmermann’s name to a French gangster (Gérard Blain) in search of a hitman. Need someone to do your dirty work? No loose ends? Get the dying man to do it. A petty response, but no one likes to be snubbed.

Another potential friendship spurned, Ripley returns to his decrepit mansion on the outskirts of the city to piddle his nights away. He takes polaroids of himself, rolls a cue ball from one end of his table to the other. Why, oh why, are men so bad at making friends?

Both Ripley and Zimmermann suffer their anxieties alone. Men are taught to be this way, after all, by fathers raised by their own heroes, their own narrow ideas of strength. Given this turn away from intimacy, is it any wonder that men tend to imitate—effectively or not—their boyhood idols? Cowboys are inherently isolated figures, which is, in fact, a large part of the appeal. A way to justify male loneliness. Men, according to the myth of the Western, aren’t meant to have friends. They’re meant to be nobly alone.

Ripley’s cowboy hat is a security blanket, a way to say, “look, there is nothing wrong with me.”

As they begin to reject their peers, men model themselves on men they’d like to befriend. They attempt to make friends of themselves.

This River Reminds Me of Another River

Feeling that he’s been a bit too hasty in floating Zimmermann’s name to the French mob, Ripley visits the dying craftsman in his shop. He wants to buy a picture frame. He wears muted colors beneath a long black coat. His hair is long enough to brush behind his ears, but not so long that it hangs over his collar. He looks not quite American, but certainly not European. A bored playboy, an expat missing home.

“I like this room,” Ripley says. “The smell of paint and wood. Must be good to work here. Then when you finish something, you can see what you’ve done.”

This isn’t realistic dialogue, nor is it meant to be. These are the kind of words men are “supposed” to use. Ripley’s isolation has left him awkward, and he speaks instead in the dated vernacular of John Wayne or Gary Cooper, the Hollywood cowboys of his childhood. “Break into my house? I ought to blow you away,” he says later in the film, aiming a gun at an intruder. “Even this river. This river reminds me of another river,” he says in a different moment, the stripped-down wisdom of the thoughtful everyman.

This isn’t a way of speaking which fosters connection. There’s no give and take. It’s rehearsed in the bathroom mirror. It’s the way our uncles talk to us, in self-approved snippets. Familiar, but cold. Ripley has made a character of himself, one who’s broadly unrelatable to other human beings. 

“What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” he asks. 

If Ripley is trying to convince anyone of his masculine bonafides, it’s himself, the boy he used to be. But of course Zimmermann is a target, as well, and more relaxed in his shop, the picture framer finds a new appreciation for Ripley’s mannerisms. Perhaps he recognizes the put-upon cowboy aesthetic for what it is, an attempt to run away from the self. Perhaps Zimmermann even sympathizes. Allows himself to recognize that he, too, once had dreams of being a different kind of man. He and Ripley make small talk, share a couple of jokes. The beginnings of a good-faith friendship.

Still, the damage caused by Ripley’s initial vindictiveness has already been done. Zimmermann accepts the French gangster’s offer, fearing that his illness has grown worse.  The job: kill one man on a subway platform, earn enough money to keep his family afloat after he dies.

As an amateur, Zimmermann is given very clear instructions. Wait for a crowd, shoot the target through the pocket of a trenchcoat, then walk calmly away. Simple enough. Zimmermann may be a family man, but doesn’t every father imagine himself capable of murder in defense of his family? Shane marching off into the desert, having done a righteous, unforgivable deed?

Nothing goes according to plan. Zimmermann can’t work up the nerve to fire with other pedestrians present. He trips over a trash can while changing trains, cutting his forehead. He accidentally exposes his gun while waiting for the target to make a phone call. When he at last takes the shot, it’s on an escalator; Zimmermann runs in the opposite direction, down, as the escalator keeps drawing him back toward the body. The entire operation is captured by a network of surveillance cameras.

A bumbling success. But does Zimmermann fancy himself some kind of gunslinger now, too?

Boys Will Beat Boys

Ripley and Zimmermann may be kindred spirits, after all. Two men acting out their boyhood visions of masculinity. Perhaps there is room for friendship, but to simply ask for it is to appear vulnerable. The safest way for men to connect is generally through activities.

Thankfully, Zimmermann has been recruited for another hit.

This murder onboard a train between Munich and Hamburg is the film’s centerpiece, as both Ripley and Zimmermann struggle to dispose of first one, then two bodies, ducking in and out of a bathroom to avoid both the conductor and their target’s entourage. With so many close calls, the stakes feel high, but the scene also stands apart for its emotional beats, for Ripley and Zimmermann’s giddy reactions to the danger.

Zimmermann is more at ease for this second assignment, resigned to the deed he’s agreed to commit, though he’s no more prepared. He sips a beer in the compartment passageway. He crosses his arms. He watches the scenery pass. He’s been given a garrote and a silenced pistol for the job, and nearly blows the operation when his target catches him playing with his new weapons in the bathroom. Just as Zimmermann is attacked and thrown to the floor, Ripley miraculously emerges from the gangway and knocks the target unconscious.

“Hi, Jon,” Ripley smiles. “Well, now it looks like we’re going to have to finish this.”

They make a party of it, sharing a bottle of whiskey as they hide the body in the bathroom. As Ripley finishes the job, a young woman soon joins Zimmermann outside the door, assuming there’s a line, and he offers her the whiskey, as well. When the conductor comes calling for tickets, it’s Zimmermann who’s stuck in the bathroom with the body as Ripley plays lookout; Zimmermann slides the dead man’s ticket beneath the door and both he and Ripley giggle. With both feet atop the toilet seat, Zimmermann grins and sips his beer as if he’s just snuck it past the school principal. They’re Butch and Sundance blowing the safe,the Wild Bunch, looting weapons from the army.

They ultimately toss the bodies of the target and his bodyguard from the train. Zimmermann saves Ripley from falling out the open door.

“You throw a gangster off a train going 80 miles an hour, and then throw a second one,” Ripley jokes the next day, “how much time passes between the two, if the train doesn’t change speed in between?”

Their nervous friendship cemented at last, they celebrate with a great big hug.

A Little Older, a Little More Confused

Zimmermann falls into the trap of romanticized bravado. Most men do, to varying degrees. The history of cinema is filled with male idols, all one has to do is pick. A point Wenders makes, as if to underline the nefarious influence of Hollywood myth-making, through the casting of two critical cameos.

The first is Samuel Fuller, the director who made a career cementing a certain kind of American manliness. Working outside the studio system, he made war films like Hell and High Water (1954) and The Steel Helmet (1951), but he got his start with the Westerns I Shot Jesse James (1950) and The Baron of Arizona (1949). Fuller would go on to direct Forty Guns (1957), a classic of the genre, in which a female rancher lords over an Arizona town with her gang of violent vigilantes.

Wenders casts Fuller as “Der Amerikaner,” a gangster seeking vengeance for the train hit. His men approach Ripley’s mansion one by one from the dark, like neighborhood boys joining a game before dinner.

Even more telling is the casting of Nicholas Ray, who plays the closest thing Ripley has to a friend before meeting Zimmermann. Another American director, famous for films which idealize iconoclastic, isolated men—Rebel Without a Cause, most famously, but also In a Lonely Place (1950), a noir, and Johnny Guitar (1954), a Western. The American Friend meets at the intersection of these two genres, and for Wenders, Ray plays an American painter. A con man. Ripley’s partner in crime. A mentor, really, and the one to first mock Ripley’s cowboy hat.

“Do you wear that hat in Hamburg?” Ray’s character sneers, so dismissive of the iconography which Ray, the director, helped create.

For these men who shaped our modern notions of the cowboy and the American West, Ripley’s dress and manner are embarrassingly transparent. The counterculture, an unmoored generation, looking to nostalgia for identity, but men like Ray and Fuller, founders of the past, know how hollow that nostalgia really is.

Ripley and Zimmermann can pretend to be John Wayne, in other words, but even John Wayne was a fictional creation. In her book, Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero, Nancy Schoenberger describes the control that director John Ford had over his leading man. Wayne, the ur-example of the valiant frontiersman, was belittled on the set of Ford’s Stagecoach for acting with “his mouth” and “skipping like a goddamn fairy.

Through this noxious relationship, “the two men succeeded in defining an ideal of American masculinity that dominated for nearly half a century,” Schoenberger writes. Through years of verbal abuse, John Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison, was molded from a Califorinian ingénue who lost his football scholarship in a bodysurfing accident into the stiff-jawed embodiment of no-nonsense individualism.

“To the extent that any actor becomes an icon, he is bigger than his role, and John Wayne the icon has always appealed to men who are smaller than they think they deserve to be,” Stephen Metcalf wrote in his review of Schoenberger’s book. 

“A Western nearly always glorifies acts of violence, then justifies them as necessary because the state proves too weak to dispense justice.”

After their assault on Ripley’s estate, Fuller’s gangster character is bludgeoned by Ripley and tossed down a flight of stairs. He lands, wide-eyed but dead, by the feet of a dazed Zimmermann, suddenly taken aback by the circumstance in which he’s found himself.

Fuller, Der Amerikaner, is shoved inside an old ambulance alongside a pile of bodies. A father of the Western murdered by his own legacy.

Ripley, Alone

For the most part, The American Friend hews fairly close to Highsmith’s source material. Wenders’s biggest change is moving the action from France to Germany. A natural decision for a German director, perhaps, but Wenders also had prior success using the backdrop of his native country to explore similar themes of isolation. Before The American Friend, he made a trio of road movies—Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road. Only fitting, then, that Wenders should end The American Friend as a road movie in miniature.

With new bodies to dispose of, Ripley and Zimmermann need to get out of town. But by this time, Zimmermann’s wife, Marianne, has put the pieces together about her husband’s new lifestyle. She arrives at Ripley’s mansion just as they’re preparing to leave. For the sake of her husband, she reluctantly agrees to tag along. They take two cars, Zimmermann and Marianne in one, Ripley and the dead men in the other. They drive through the night, stopping for gas, and by morning they’ve arrived at the coast.

Marianne’s arrival presents Zimmermann with a choice. As they follow Ripley, Marianne provides comfort to her husband even after he’s betrayed her trust. She lets him rest his head in her lap as she drives. But most crucially, Marianne tells Zimmermann that his illness is, in fact, stable. She spoke with his doctor and found that Ripley’s associates in Paris had lied to him and doctored his test results. She offers what Ripley, so concerned with image, cannot: honesty.

Ripley’s counteroffer is to set the ambulance on fire.

It burns on a deserted stretch of beach, the bodies still inside. Ripley cheers as it explodes. It’s one of the film’s most striking visuals, and one certainly in keeping with Dennis Hopper’s countercultural reputation. The iconoclast burning it all down, the kind of freedom men dream of when they’re young. The bonfire is at once a final proposition to Zimmermann, an invitation to violent abandon, and a raw expression of Ripley’s elation at having finally found a friend.

But the choice isn’t difficult. Zimmermann gets into the remaining car with Marianne and drives away, laughing into the rearview mirror as Ripley runs after them. He’s seen, at last, the hollow nature of his American friend. That Ripley may have fashioned himself into a boyhood vision of manliness, but has, in the process, abandoned any sense of who he really is.