The Quiet American


The Quiet American (1958) is an adaptation by Joseph L Mankiewicz of Graham Greene’s novel of the same name and it, unintentionally from the filmmaker’s point of view, poses the question of whether a movie is best approached or evaluated on an emotional or an intellectual level. Greene was very unhappy with the changes Mankiewicz made to his book, particularly with the alterations to the political sentiments the author had written into his story. Greene’s objection highlights what I think of as the intellectual approach, for viewing a film and assessing its worth or success in terms of its political perspective strikes me as a coldly intellectual exercise. Conversely, examining how a movie deals with the human interactions that underpin the story is surely a more emotional approach. Given that I have long been convinced that art is much more closely related to the heart than the head, it probably won’t come as any surprise to learn which view I tend to favor.

The Quiet American opens near the end of the story and works back from there in search of a beginning that will allow all the events and personalities involved to fall into place. The titular character (Audie Murphy) who remains unnamed throughout, unlike in Greene’s novel, is already dead when we viewers come on the scene. His body is floating face down near the banks of the river in Saigon, discovered by chance by revelers celebrating Chinese New Year. From here we are taken back to the months before his demise, to the time when he first arrived in Vietnam. So the bulk of the movie is related via flashback, unfolding from the point of view of Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave), a British journalist and acquaintance of the anonymous American, as he conducts a one-man wake in the morgue, reflecting on the life and death of the young man reposing on the slab before him. Those few months defined the course of the lives of three people: Fowler, the American, and Phuong (Giorgia Moll), the young Vietnamese girl who is loved by both of them. Regardless of the political background of the tale, and the points about the role of foreign intervention in South East Asia that Greene wanted to make, this is a love story first and last; remove that element and there is nothing to relate that has any resonance beyond contemporary concerns. What matters here, and what the movie focuses on, is the triangle formed by those three people, with Phuong acting as the anchor.

As I mentioned above, Greene felt aggrieved at the way the script radically altered the points he wanted to make in his book. I can understand that frustration on the part of the author, and I can sympathize with what he must have seen as wholesale distortion of his vision. I read and enjoyed his novel many years ago yet I still appreciate this movie for what it is, for what it does rather than what it does not. Basically, I see the changes that Greene disliked as only background details as far as the movie is concerned – those elements might be integral to the aims of the novel, but Mankiewicz was making a movie and both his medium and the aims he had were very different. I am of the opinion that any filmmaker who emphasizes the purely contemporary elements of a story at the expense of the timeless aspects is straying into the realms of commentary. In short, I see film as a form of artistic expression, an analysis of the human condition, and that is something eternal rather than ephemeral.

Ultimately, what counts is whether or not the movie works on the terms by which it was conceived. I regard it mainly as both a love story and as a contemplation of the way we frequently project visions of ourselves and the world around us onto those we love. As such, I consider it to have succeeded in achieving it aims. Of course one can dig deeper and read more into it all, seeing different slants on relationships adopted by the old world and the new, the contrasting views of young and old, and so on. Nevertheless, it all comes back to the portrayal and interpretation of love and what that means to various individuals in the end. The background of the story operates in relation to the characters like the MacGuffin in a Hitchcock film, but even then only up to a point. After all, when Fowler makes his fateful decision, he is motivated by a toxic cocktail of pride, jealousy, fear and thwarted passion and not something as prosaically dreary as political convictions.

On paper, one would say that having Audie Murphy face off against Michael Redgrave would lead to an uneven and unfair contest. On celluloid and in fact , however, the contest is a remarkably even and productive one. Murphy had grown steadily as an actor by the late 1950s and this kind of dramatic role was well within his capabilities. There is still a lot of fresh energy about him, and that quality is used to superb effect when placed in contrast to Redgrave’s worn and dissipated cynicism. That fresh faced enthusiasm always cloaked a deeper steel and there is never any doubt about the resilience of the idealistic young man he was portraying. When he trades words with Redgrave’s weary writer, the latter may indicate disdain for their naivety but he never really questions their sincerity, and nor do the viewers. Redgrave is every bit as good as the complete opposite, a tired and spent man whose surface smugness masks chronic insecurity and desperation. We believe it when Murphy shows drive and positivity, and that sense of credibility is just as strong when Redgrave paints his own picture of desolation and emptiness.

Italian actress Giorgia Moll is wonderfully unknowable as the focal point for the affections of those two very different men. There is a lot of passivity about her character, right up till the end anyway. Her final scene adds a great deal of punch and power though, largely because of the apparent indifference and insouciance she displays earlier. The cast is fairly self-contained, but Claude Dauphin lends attractive support as the deceptively relaxed policeman who misses very little. Bruce Cabot has what amounts to a cameo as an American journalist and Richard Loo, who popped up all over the place throughout the 40s and 50s whenever an Asian character was required, is coolly efficient as Redgrave’s contact with the insurgents.

The Quiet American was given a release on Blu-ray by Twilight Time some years ago but I never got around to picking it up and have had to make do with less than stellar DVD versions. It’s a shame no company in the UK has been able to put this film on the market on BD so far. The story was filmed in 2002 by Philip Noyce, with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser in the Redgrave and Murphy roles, and it stuck closer to the sentiments of the novel. I saw it at the time and while I thought it was fine (although I should say I’ve never been able to warm to Fraser in anything) I don’t think it was improved by being more faithful to its source. I can only say that I have never felt the need to revisit the 2002 film in twenty years whereas I’ve seen the Mankiewicz version multiple times.

25 thoughts on “The Quiet American

  1. Hi Colin, I love the novel, one of Greene’s finest from the 40s and 50s in my view, and think both film versions have merit. Redgrave is such brilliant casting that it automatically gives the earlier version the edge, though having Moll play a Vietnamese character dates it badly. Murphy is also great casting – one of his best films I think. Greene’s books were of course celebrated for their topicality and political prescience, though his ending was attached by many when it came out. Having said that, Mankiewicz’ changes to the ending do stick in my craw, not least because he was, seemingly, of the major Hollywood directors then active, the one least likely to give in to the political pressures of the day (one need only think of his satirical attack on the McCarthy withhunts in PEOPLE WILL TALK). I think the change really does hurt the film and was a cowardly thing to do – but I agree with you, in terms of character it still works, albeit in a more conventional movie mode. But I don’t want to get too hung up on that as you have studiously avoided spoilers after all ๐Ÿ˜. It is high time we got a decent Blu-ray of the film, I quite agree. There is a very decent book on the making of the film out there by William Russo.

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    • I do understand the dislike you have of the changes made in this adaptation, it’s a view I know is shared by many, including Greene himself. It doesn’t bother me particularly though , firstly because I don’t feel any adaptation owes loyalty to the source it derives from as it exists as a work in its own right and as such is entitled to go in any direction its makers wish. That’s kind of a general point pertaining to movies and adaptations overall, but I’m also fine with the Mankiewicz script due to the fact that, in spite of the changes, the film never feels as though it is really concerned with politics or making a strong political point. That is not to say there is no point being made, rather that it is not integral to the attainment of the film’s goals. The aim of the movie is surely to highlight the emotional conflict of the characters, the nature of their love and the fact it so consumes them despite their coming at it from different positions. This is all in Greene’s book too of course but I reckon he was aiming for something else from a creative standpoint. It seems to me he was looking to tell a to story which commented on world affairs, with a strong contemporary flavor, and also one which blended in themes dealing with human relationships. Essentially, an attempt to mix journalism and art, and I’m not convinced it’s a great idea to try marrying the timeless (art) to the stubbornly contemporary (journalism), one tends to weaken the other and the artistic element can’t help being diluted as a consequence the further we move away from the period in which it was made and which its commentary refers to. Mankiewicz’s film is much less interested in this, changing the slant to facilitate the making of the movie but, simultaneously and perhaps ironically, not actually concerning itself too much with that aspect. One can have no knowledge whatsoever of the political background of the story, or indeed of the development of the film’s script, and the move still succeeds as an emotional drama. I’d argue that in creating a piece of art, this is of greater importance, and I’m even inclining towards the view that it is the only thing that matters.

      The casting issue does indeed date the film in that such practices would not be considered acceptable now. This is an area I’ve been into before and I’m not keen on revisiting it to be honest. I’ll merely day that I again appreciate the reasoning behind this but remain of the opinion that the actress was fine in her role here. Broadly speaking, it’s not something I can ever get worked up about in movies as it seems a little pointless to attack acting for not being sufficiently realistic, authenticity and reality being quite different after all. To do so feels like criticizing art for being art.

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      • I do understand where you are coming from, though in terms of the Mankiewicz adaptation, I think it is legitimate to question the validity of the shift from the text when it has mostly been followed very closely up to that point. After all, it’s not that he removed the politics but that he changed them. Ford did the same with THE FUGITIVE (from Greene’s Power and the Glory) and the film suffers badly as a result. Equally, if Ford had relocated THE INFORMER to, fur example, Marselleis and removed the politics I don’t think that would have gone down well at all ๐Ÿ˜ I think the politics in QUIET are part and parcel of the story, which after all is set at a very particular time and place, so am disagreeing with you on that score. Which is a bit traumatic frankly ๐Ÿ˜† All the best mate

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        • I think the politics in QUIET are part and parcel of the story

          I’m inclined to agree. The political aspect is the heart and soul of the story and was the entire reason for writing the novel.

          It would be like doing a movie of The Big Sleep and deciding to drop the crime angle.

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          • I don’t doubt Greene felt that was central to the book but I think Mankiewicz, by altering the author’s message, shifted the emphasis considerably. The emotional aspects of the story gain in strength at the expense of the commentary, which is no bad thing from my perspective.

            Actually, your point about adapting crime stories, which I guess was slightly tongue in cheek given the notoriously convoluted nature of the plot in both the Hawks film and Chandler’s novel, raises the question of whether those types of stories do tend to suffer more if the adaptations are too free.

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        • Hmm, regarding Ford, I’m not sure that altering the politics, or indeed the setting, behind the story of The Informer would have mattered all that much either. If you removed the guilt and spiritualism that underpins the story, however, then you would gut it.

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          • If you lose the context of Irish nationalism then I am not sure much is left. It’s bad enough they censored all references to the IRA. But at that point it is no longer about artistic validity really. I mean, sure, you can turn everything into a Western and pretend that people aren’t motivated by their political beliefs but that’s pretty thin drama (IMHO).

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            • As you say though, a certain scrubbing already took place. The story is surely about guilt and betrayal of convictions, though I don’t see that the specific nature of those convictions is vital. The core of the story could be relocated to a different conflict situation and still carry the same emotional clout. As an Irishman myself, I always find it interesting to see the conflict there portrayed on screen but I still think that this film is a s much an examination of the conflict or the soul as a conflict of political allegiance.

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  2. PS On the issue of fidelity in textual adaptation, for me it varies from case to case. The source for Siodmak’s SPIRAL STAIRCASE, White’s SEE THEM DIE, has almost nothing to do with film really while PSYCHO is very close to the original book but it’s not why I like either film so much after all. Ah well …

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    • I’ve decided that in future I’m not going to see a movie if I’ve read the book, unless I can leave a gap of at least a few years in between. I’ve been disappointed so many times recently by movie adaptations of novels that I’ve enjoyed.

      Or alternatively I’m going to see the movie before reading the book.

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    • I thought The Spiral Staircase was an outstanding example of a movie that was much much better than the source novel.

      Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was based on a novel by the same author, and is also much much better than the source novel. They’re both examples of mediocre novels turned into great movies.

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    • Definitely. I know I look at stuff on a case by case basis. In general, being faithful to texts is rarely a deal breaker with me, although i understand how that’s not so for everyone, and I’ve no doubt there are instances where I have been more concerned. I am, as often as not, consistently inconsistent.

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      • Absolutely, same here. If changes are made, the reason why will have an impact. The final act of Jim Thompson’s THE GETAWAY has always been omitted despite being the best part of the book. But it is pretty much unfilmabke and just too dark, so I get it …

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  3. I’ll throw my two cents in. A couple of years back on this site there was a lot said about the two movie versions and the novel. My take then and still is now that both movies have their merits. However, the two differ mainly because of Brendan Frazer, who I didn’t get on with
    at all and on the other hand, Michael Caine who I thought was outstanding getting the movie over the top. I thought Murphy and Redgrave were convincing in their roles.
    My biggest disappointment is the final act of the 1958 version. If one has ever spent time in SE Asia know it is completely unrealistic. Whereas the final act of the 2002 version is much more accurate to real life situations. Being that I have lived in Cambodia for the last 15 years the 1958 version went totally off the rails in that final act. So that’s it.

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  4. I believe the film was referred to in one of your posts a while back, Colin, which prompted me to buy a copy. As I still haven’t got to it I skipped over your review somewhat to avoid any possible spoilers. That said, I saw the film once but many years ago, on TV.
    I have a number of Greene’s novels, many read and enjoyed over the years, and I do have this book but not read it.
    I view books and films as very much two art forms and don’t tend to get too excited about how closely a film follows the original. Film screenplays mostly have to condense the original in order to fit any reasonable film length anyway.
    I very much look forward to re-viewing this 1958 version and will be paying close attention to the change to Greene’s ending having read the very interesting and knowledgable debate going on here.
    My rather distant memory of the film was that Murphy acquitted himself well. Michael Redgrave was a very fine screen actor and was therefore unsurprisingly good here.

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  5. Nice review. Happy New year to you. Ironically I have been reading Don Graham’s fantastic book on Audie Murphy. He does an excellent job on all facets of Audie’s life and he talks this movie and its difficulties. I highly recommend this book. Somebody should do a modern film on Audie’s tragic life. It is an astounding story. Oh and how would I like to see ‘Red Badge’ in its full version.

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