by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

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

Nothing, if you’re Tom Ripley. Yes, that Tom Ripley, of The Talented Mr Ripley fame, the character whose coveting and yearning became perverse virtues of their own, who launched a thousand iGents in search of the cufflinks box, the cashmere sweater, the monogrammed slipper that was no doubt their only missing step to belonging to that club of people who didn’t want anyone who had to try. 

Nothing’s wrong, that is, if you’re Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley in Wim Wenders’ film The American Friend, a loose but fantastic adaptation of the third Ripley novel, Ripley’s Game. Wearing his cowboy hat through New York’s SoHo or on the banks of the Alster, harmonizing nowhere but somehow right for this movie. The original Ripley was about the painful beauty of nice things and nice lives and what we will destroy to have things we otherwise cannot. By his third book, the literary Ripley is wealthy and established, and is no longer seeking to insert his identity into another. He no longer seeks belonging through belongings. He knows who he is and is not afraid of what he wants.

For embracing his own uniqueness, The American Friend could meet the style criteria of one of my clothing mentors, who recently proclaimed a German housemate of his an icon for parading out of the pool and through the Hollywood Hills house they shared in the 1970s naked in his glory, and apparently confident in his personal style (among other things, I guess). 

Superficially, Hopper’s Ripley is the inverse of this apocryphal, archetypal German (we all expect the Germans to be very open about nudity). Wenders, who reviewed drafts of the book Ripley’s Game during its preparation, made the Ripley of his film an injection of slightly seamy Americana into the seat of bourgeois Germany, shooting pool in his Hamburg mansion, a cowboy in more than one meaning – uninhibited and riding roughshod over convention, surrounded by icons of the 1950s culture the U.S. had exported, from the cowboy getup to the presence of various directors like Nicholas Ray, who directed Rebel Without a Cause, in minor roles. 

Conceptually, however, Hopper’s Ripley has the same fearlessness and uniqueness as my friend’s naked Teuton. The American Friend wears his Stetson not to provoke reaction, but because it is what he feels like wearing, if not who he is: called out by an acquaintance, he doesn’t even register that he has a cowboy hat on, examining it as if he’s seen it for the first time before uttering the question above. His style is in-built and an expression of self so natural he’s able to forget what he’s wearing since it is him, as much a part of him as the birthday suit was part of Hollywood German. 

For Ripley’s spirit – unapologetic self-expression – is logically consistent with the idea of style being a level of self-confidence so high you parade around with your junk out, something not to be advised today unless you also have the instinctive ability to read the room too. If we think personal style is something strong enough and personal enough to come across even without any clothes, a wearer must be able to radiate it even wearing clothes we might not wear ourselves, as long as the wearer (no longer au naturel) feels they are natural to him. In the absence of intelligent design, instinctive style must mean this, the revelation of self.

Self-revelation is key to Ripley’s Game, and why the golden light and lifestyle snuff porn that were perfect for Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley would have been all wrong for The American Friend. Liliana Cavani’s 2000s cliché-ridden adaptation of Ripley’s Game shows why, with John Malkovich playing his usual suave creep, surrounded by beautiful bourgeois things. Minghella’s Ripley, based on the first Ripley novel, was about its main character’s inhibited and prohibited desires for things and people and the transgressive thrill of indulging those desires. No wonder we iGents love it. The novel Ripley’s Game and Wenders’ The American Friend are about a man who has what he wants and does not care what others think of his tastes. Instead, what he seeks is to bring out those characteristics in another, Bruno “Downfall Hitler” Ganz’s normal, decent family man.  

What makes a normal man turn into a killer? What can make a sane, well-adjusted person commit twisted, cold-blooded transgressions? The Talented Mr Ripley didn’t ask those questions: we learn quickly that Tom Ripley always was superficially, unthreateningly, but deeply, disturbed. The American Friend, however, is about the search for identification between two men, the search to express some shared qualities of self, for respect and unlikely friendship between this American psychopath and the good (and clothed) German.
Is style, then, a revelation of self so powerful as to be solipsistic? According to Wenders, finally realizing and expressing who you are might be the ultimate transgression, a joy that precedes death, unless through some accident of class you are sheltered from the effects of not only your actions, but who you ultimately are.