Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Quiet American (1958)

The Quiet American (1958) is a black and white film directed and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also wrote the screenplay.  It is based on a novel of the same name by Graham Greene and was followed by a remake in 2002.

The motion picture stars Audie Murphy as the American, Michael Redgrave as Thomas Fowler, Giorgia Moll as Phuong, and Claude Dauphin as the French police inspector, Vigot.

A multi-layered story with political intrigue, a detective story, and a romantic triangle, the film opens with the death by drowning of the American, an event that occurs during the Chinese New Year's celebration in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1952.  The story is then told for the most part in flashbacks related by Fowler as Inspector Vigot investigates and questions Fowler and probes into events leading up to the death.

Fowler is a cynical, aging British newspaper correspondent who is ostensibly covering the conflict between the French colonial and Vietnamese imperial forces on the one side, and the Communist rebels on the other. In fact, Fowler works very little and sends his assistant, Dominguez, to the battle zone in his stead. And, although Fowler has a wife back home in England, he lives with Phuong, a beautiful young Vietnamese woman who was formerly a paid "dining and dancing partner" at an establishment called the Rendezvous.

Fowler's assistant, Dominguez, is an enigmatic character whose nationality is not revealed in the film and who is an entirely different person in the book.  Since it eventually comes to light that Dominguez is a Communist, the implication is perhaps that he is a Cuban.

The American (who is nameless in the film, but called Alden Pyle in the novel) is an idealistic young aid worker for a group called Friends for Free Asia.   Influenced by the writings of a political scientist, York Harding, the American is convinced that the answer for Vietnam is the formation of a "Third Force", an alternative to either the preservation of the monarchy/ colonialism or the imposition of Communism.

The American, Fowler, and Phuong become acquainted one evening at the Hotel Continental (a well-known landmark in Saigon in real life), and dine together at the Rendezvous.  While the American and Phuong dance, leaving Fowler to order dinner for the three of them, Phuong's sister, Miss Hei, seizes the opportunity to question Fowler about the American.   Thus begins a campaign by Miss Hei to marry Phuong off to the American, who is more than willing since he has already fallen in love with Phuong.

At the behest of Dominguez, Fowler reluctantly travels north to the battle zone.  To the amazement of the French military, the other correspondents, and Fowler, the American suddenly appears, having driven a Red Cross jeep there from Hanoi for the purpose of telling Fowler that he has fallen in love with Phuong, wants to court her, and wants to be straightforward with Fowler.  The American also brings Fowler a cable forwarded by Dominguez saying that the newspaper has called Fowler home to England.

A couple of weeks later, Fowler returns to Saigon.  Dominguez picks him up at the airport and begins planting suspicions that the American is involved in political machinations. Fowler, however, is more worried about whether the American is engaged in romantic intrigue with Phuong. When Fowler returns to his apartment, Phuong admits she has been seeing the American, but always in the company of Miss Hei.

The American and his dog, Duke, come to visit.  The American proclaims his love for Phuong and his desire to court and marry her.  The encounter upsets Phuong.  She does not actually reject the American but assures Fowler she will remain with him even after Fowler tells her he must return to England.  Then in an effort to compete with the American, Fowler writes to his wife asking for a divorce, knowing in advance that she will not agree because she is a devout believer (high church Anglican.)

Because of the political potentialities of the 25,000-member private Army of the Cao Dai syncretistic religious sect, Fowler and other journalists travel to the sect's "Holy See" at Tay Ninh for the annual Cao Dai festival. There, Fowler sees the American speaking with an associate of General Thé, the former Cao Dai chief of staff, now a renegade from the sect.

After the press conference, the men must return to Saigon before nightfall because of the danger of insurgent attacks at night. The American's automobile has been tampered with and will not start. Fowler offers the American a ride back to Saigon.  Part way, Fowler's automobile, which has been drained of gasoline, runs out near a French watchtower.  The men take refuge in the tower with two young Vietnamese soldiers.  The Communists attack and Fowler is injured attempting to escape.  The American saves Fowler's life by carrying him to safety, then locates a French patrol to take Fowler for medical care.

After a stay in the hospital, Fowler returns to Saigon and hears back from his wife.  He lies to Phuong, telling her that the wife has agreed to a divorce.  Phuong shows the letter to Miss Hei, who knows English.  The truth is revealed and Phuong leaves Fowler for the American.

Meanwhile, Dominguez and a Chinese Communist assassin, Heng, convince Fowler that the American is providing explosives to General Thé as part of a scheme to build the Third Force.  After a deadly bombing in the center of Saigon that is very likely perpetrated by the Communists but blamed on General Thé, Heng proposes that Fowler set up the American for assassination.  Fowler is initially hesitant but after learning that Phuong will soon be leaving for America, he suddenly resolves to cooperate in the assassination plot.

The American is killed and Phuong returns to work at the Rendezvous. Vigot investigates, questions Fowler, and arrests Heng and Dominguez. Fowler's wife belatedly writes that she will agree to the divorce after all and Fowler's paper permits him to remain in Saigon for the time being. Nevertheless, Phuong refuses to reconcile with Fowler who, in the end, is left entirely alone and bereft of any dignity.

Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy were well cast for their roles. Redgrave skillfully portrays the selfish sarcastic persona of Fowler while at the same time managing to invite a modicum of pity for his character because he reveals the character's underlying psychological fragility.  As for Audie Murphy, he is quite believable as the American, a role for which his personal history fit him very well since he was the most-decorated veteran of World War II.

A lot has been said about the real historical persons and events alluded to in the film, about the war in Vietnam that occurred after the novel, and about the similarities and differences between Greene's novel, Mankiewicz's screenplay, and the 2002 remake. Overall, the 2002 version is not more faithful to the novel as its enthusiasts claim.  In any event, I much prefer Mankiewicz's 1958 film to either the novel or the 2002 film.

What I find most interesting is the film's exploration of how a man's ability to reason and make moral judgments can be undermined by his passions.  In the act of betraying the American, who has saved his life, Fowler reads aloud a passage from Shakespeare's Othello where Iago says, "Though I perchance am vicious in my guess (As, I confess, it is my nature's plague To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy Shapes faults that are not)". (Act III, Scene 3.)

Nevertheless, Fowler fails to heed the caution suggested by the passage.  He is so unsettled by the impending loss of Phuong that, despite his sophistication and journalistic training, Heng and Dominguez have easily manipulated him into believing that the American is providing General Thé with an explosive named "Diolacton" -- a substance that is fictional in the story as well as in real life -- and Fowler proceeds with the betrayal, then leaves it up to the God he does not believe in to intervene.

Moreover, Fowler's moral culpability is compounded by the fact that he does not truly love Phuong.  After Fowler lies, telling Phuong that his wife is going to permit a divorce, he treats Phuong peremptorily, ordering her about.  And, he tells the American that he does not care about Phuong's "interests".  Rather he just wants her and wants her with him.

One of the many ironies of the story is that while Fowler is loathe to return to England with the monotonous predictability of "the Press Club and the number 78 bus", he has embedded himself into a safe little world with Phuong that is just as narrow, if a bit more exotic.  And, the prospect of that world being torn apart is as shattering to Fowler as the prospect of losing predictable comforts would be to the most timid and banal of the Londoners Fowler disdains.  It is Phuong who dreams of a wider world with her picture books of America and England.

Another irony is that while Fowler sees the American as dangerously naive and foolish, the American sees Fowler as the one who is "truly innocent" because of his lack of self-knowledge and the degree to which his emotions obscure his perceptions.  Before his death, the American  (an Episcopalian) encourages Fowler to examine his conscience and suggests religion as a remedy for his spiritual affliction.  Inspector Vigot (a Roman Catholic) makes the same suggestions after the American's death.  Even when Fowler realizes he has been duped and has pronounced a private death sentence based on insufficient evidence, however, he persists in his atheism.  The end result is that he is left without absolution and without hope.

The film presents religion and morality in a positive light and adultery in a negative light.  There is no nudity, profanity, or vulgarity, and there are no bedroom scenes. I give the 1958 version five roses.

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