In this adaptation of Graham Greene's prophetic novel about U.S. foreign policy failure in pre-war Indochina, Audie Murphy plays an innocent Young American opposite the older, cynical Brit Michael Redgrave. They play out their widely different views on the prospects struggle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people in their competition over a young woman. Murphy wants to reform her and make her a typical middle class American housewife; Redgrave accepts her inability to formulate or retain a political ideal and while promising her no real future, he objects to Murphy's attempts to change her. It's not clear whether Murphy is just what he appears - a bungling Yankee do-gooder - or a deliberate agent of U.S. covert operations. Written by
Rita Richardson <RRichar790@aol.com>
In Europe, director-writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz was savagely attacked for his film's infidelity to the source novel by Graham Greene, not least by Greene himself. The screenplay essentially turns the novel inside-out, so that the blundering "quiet American", whose extreme naiveté causes tragedy and his own death despite his having only the best of intentions, is transformed into a shrewd and heroic figure, far wiser and more honorable than his British rival. Mankiewicz later referred to the film as "very bad" (although he also liked to point out that Jean-Luc Godard had called it the best film of its year) and claimed that he had not been able to concentrate on the film because of the mental collapse of his wife, Rose Stradner, who committed suicide soon after he had finished it. See more »
[Narrating a flashback as the American dances with Phoung]
He held her properly - not too close - the way you're supposed to hold another man's girl according to the rules.
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French colonial Vietnam, and a desperate cynical British reporter whose life, and love, are crumbling
The Quiet American (1958)
I think this is an extraordinary film. At the time, Americans didn't like it because it made them look bad, and the writer of the book it is based on, Graham Greene, didn't like it because it changed too much of his anti-American plot. But as a film, whatever its blurring of truth to history, is true about human nature. The credit for this goes not only to Greene, the enormously gifted writer and co-screenwriter, but also to the director, one of the lesser known American masters at telling a romantic story, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also helped with the screenplay.
The two are a perfect match, really, because both are all about subtlety and observation. Greene in particular has a way of bringing up the biggest issues in the most intimate and delicate ways, never grandiose, always psychologically sharp. And that is carried forward here in Vietnam a decade before the American War of the 1960s. The Communists are already fighting in the north, the French are getting ready to abandon the country to the Americans, and a British reporter is the center of our attention, not quite on anyone's side.
There are two key characters, the reporter played with astonishing depth and acumen by Michael Redgrave, and "the American", played toward a caricature by Audie Murphy, with enough twists to his character to avoid over-stereotyping.
Greene's observations of American do-good naiveté are fascinating, and the way this gets mixed (poisoned) with American meddling and military subversion is way ahead of its time. Or is it? It might be simply observant of the facts in 1950s Vietnam. Greene was a reporter himself there then, and after this book was published he was followed by American Intelligence until his death in 1991. One of the brilliant aspects of this movie is how it is not simply a love story, but has a trenchant, disturbing comment to make about world affairs, from the inside.
Still, love intrudes, and the crossed loves of the two men for the same young Vietnamese woman is less clichéd than you might expect. The story is moving without being sentimental. And all of this is layered up with the actual Imperialist/Colonialist facts of the time. The conflicting sides of a war that few really understood (it seems) until twenty years later are here in their full formed germinations. Unlike the Michael Caine version of the same story (from 2002), this one was made before history had unfolded. It's endlessly almost chillingly fascinating, even though Greene's anti-war (and somewhat anti-American) tone was largely removed. The later movie might be closer to the book, but it feels like a movie made about history, not one that predicts it.
There are some scenes here, priceless ones, shot in Vietnam in 1958, the rest is done (with terrific light and set design) in an Italian film studio. Greene was British and the production Italian, but the Mankiewicz was American, and fully steeped in American filmmaking and myth making. It's this last aspect that is key--the movie is made to the highest standards of 1940s American melodramas, even having an echo (in terms of light and drama and style) of William Wyler's "The Letter" also set in Southeast Asia. The filming is astonishing--the photography is in the hands of Robert Krasker, who shot "The Third Man" and "Brief Encounter" to give you an idea of the moody richness of his style.
And as a melodrama it comes down to the crumbling personal world of Fowler. At the end, in the busy night streets of a chaotic Saigon, he says, "I wish there was someone to whom I could say I'm sorry." I found it the final moving, beautiful strain of truth and pathos in a very special movie.
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