Wenders & Suzuki: Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive

I saw two very different films Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. They were not a double feature, and few people stayed for both of them.

The American Friend

Brief digression: My wife and I watched the first two seasons of Breaking Bad recently; we’re not sure if and when we’ll get to season 3. One problem I had with the show is that the thriller-style plot felt stretched for five seasons of episodic television. I felt it would work much better as a single movie.

Wim Wenders’ The American Friend proves my point. The plot is basically the same–a family man with a fatal disease turns to crime so that his family will have money after he’s gone. In a taut 126 minutes, Wenders tells the story economically, effectively, and entertainingly.

Wender’s film has another advantage. It’s based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train; The Talented Mr. Ripley). I haven’t read any of her books, but I have yet to see a film based on one that I didn’t like.

Dennis Hopper gets star billing as Highsmith’s most famous character, Tom Ripley, but the real star is Bruno Ganz as a craftsman who frames and restores paintings. He has a shop, a reputation, a wife, a young son, and a blood disease that will sooner or later kill him.

This makes him an easy target for Ripley’s criminal intentions. Ripley and another crook trick the craftsman into believing that his time is shorter than it is, and convince him to make money quick as a professional killer. A little bit of him dies with that first hit.

Of course things will go wrong.

The pace isn’t as tight as a Hollywood thriller, but that’s fine with me. Wenders gives the story space to breathe. But by the last third, the suspense is ratcheted up considerably.

I give it an A.

By the way, there’s a reference to Buster Keaton’s The General early in the film. I was the only one in the large audience that laughed.

This screening is part of the PFA’s massive Wim Wender series, which runs through the end of July. Like all of the films in the series, it has been digitally restored, and was projected in a 4K DCP. It looked damn near perfect.


Seeing these two films back to back makes a very strong argument for digital projection. The special “Imported” 35mm print of Yumeji was in horrible condition. It was badly scratched. “Silent” moments were accompanied by a persistent hiss. Focus was problematic. Much of film had a yellow, vertical line running through it.

(To be fair, I’ve seen excellent 35mm prints and horrible digital transfers. I just didn’t see them Friday night.)

Maybe I would have noticed the problems less if it had been a better film. Set in the 1920s, Yumeji follows the amorous adventures of a famous painter who often sleeps with his models and other women. The whole film has a this-can’t-be-happening, is-this-a-dream vibe.

That could have been fun, and at times it succeeded in being funny or sexy. But it wasn’t consistently funny or sexy enough to overcome the broad characters and weak plot.

The film screened as part of the PFA’s ongoing series on director Iseijun Suzuki. I went into this movie with no idea what it was about. I was disappointed.

I give it a C-.