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DVD SAVANT

The Quiet American


The Quiet American
MGM
1958 / B&W / 1:66 flat letterboxed / 120 min. / Street Date April 19, 2005 / 14.95
Starring Audie Murphy, Michael Redgrave, Claude Dauphin, Giorgia Moll, Bruce Cabot, Fred Sadoff, Kerima, Richard Loo
Cinematography Robert Krasker
Production Designer
Art Direction
Film Editor William Hornbeck
Original Music Mario Nascimbene
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a novel by Graham Greene
Produced and Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This earlier version of Graham Greene's Vietnam-set thriller is excellent viewing in contrast with the 2002 Michael Caine remake. That atmospheric show was lauded for telling the story straight but was robbed of its point; with the Iraq war looming on the horizon, a subtle story about possible U.S. foreign intrigues somehow seemed rather toothless.

This 1958 version is fascinating to ponder, a big-budget international production in which a celebrated American talent, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, put his filmmaking where his politics lay. As many readers know, the original plotline was drastically altered to invert Greene's message. With the involvement of American star Audie Murphy, Greene's duplicitous Yankee agent now becomes an innocent victim, and the blame for Communist gains in Vietnam is placed at the foot of a wishy-washy Englishman duped by a few cheap tricks.

How this could happen must be a good story; Hollywood liberals like to assume that sinister government agents secretly demanded changes to protect the interests of the Eisenhower administration and its Cold War agenda. As attractive as that option seems, nothing's ever that simple. This original film version of The Quiet American has been a difficult film to see for many decades.

Synopsis:

Slightly demoralized English journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave) stays close to Saigon and his Vietnamese mistress Phuong (Giorgia Moll). His estranged wife back in England will not grant him a divorce, much to the distress of Phuong's practical-minded sister (Kerima). Fowler's happiness ends when an American aid representative (Audie Murphy) comes into the picture and sweeps Phuong off her feet. Appalled by the idea that she was once a "club girl," the idealistic American has plans to marry Phuong and take her home to America. This puts Fowler in a terrible spot, and he's soon writing back to his wife and pleading for a divorce. But another possibility presents itself: Fowler's contact Dominguez (Fred Sadoff) puts him in contact with a Viet businessman named Heng (Richard Loo) who knows that the American is really a Yankee spy sent to start a "third force," a nationalist movement to counter the Communists and depose the French in favor of an American presence. The American's smuggled explosives are behind a series of terrorist killings ... maybe something should be done about him.

(spoilers)

Greene's story, and the 2002 film version made the Thomas Fowler character a confused man who does the right thing for the wrong reason. He helps to eliminate the American to keep his girl and uses his moral outrage of the American's underhanded political activities as a feeble excuse. Mankiewicz' version plays almost identically in every respect until it comes time to decide the truth of the mystery. The story is shuffled so that that Fowler is the dupe of Communist assassins, easily maneuvered into thinking that a Yankee could actually be creating violent incidents to change the political climate in Saigon. How foolish can one get? Fowler indirectly confronts the American with his charges, and gets no response at all.

Except for this (enormous) disctinction, the two versions of The Quiet American match on a scene to scene basis, indicating either that the original story was highly cinematic or that the remake people used the Mankiewicz version as a template. Mankiewicz was one of the most respected writer/directors in Hollywood and The Quiet American was his first film in years that did not become a big success. Produced under the Figaro banner, it combined French, English and American acting talent with a mostly Italian crew and filmed a lot of exteriors in Saigon. The realism and adult nature of the show are remarkable for 1958 and it was considered a thinking man's film from the get-go.

Claude Dauphin (Barbarella) and several other Frenchmen are joined by the Parisian Yoko Tani (First Spaceship on Venus); Michael Redgrave is almost alone as the Englishman, and the interesting-looking Italian actress Giorgia Moll (Contempt, Land of the Pharaohs, two Steve Reeves spectaculars) is Phuong, the love interest. Audie Murphy is barely adequate as the American but his shallow acting style does contribute to making the character seem superficial; everything he does, from suddenly showing an interest in Phuong to magically appearing in a war zone, seems supect. Murphy's casting was possibly a clever attempt by Mankiewicz to entice American viewers into seeing a political movie. Whatever happened, the plan backfired; I find it impossible to believe that Joseph Mankiewicz would go to all the trouble of filming Greene's book, only to turn its political message on its head. Then again, neither can I see Mankiewicz ever expecting to be allowed to release a movie that showed an American 'aid representative' actually instigating terrorist bombings and mass murders to further U.S. aims. Note: I was completely mistaken in this... see footnotes: 1  2

That's the difference between the 1958 and 2002 versions of The Quiet American: Back when the news of CIA foreign adventures needed to get out, Greene's message could be suppressed. In 2002, the public discourse on such subjects is so muddied that nobody pays attention, even when bombs are going off in our own back yards.


MGM's DVD of The Quiet American is an acceptably good non-enhanced transfer that shows off the film's impressive production qualities. It's said to be the first American film shot in Vietnam. There are no extras or production notes. The nicely designed cover art is reminiscent of the recent MGM release The Four Feathers.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Quiet American rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 29, 2005


Footnotes:

1. A Thinker's Damn: Audie Murphy, Vietnam, and the Making of the Quiet American is a 2001 book about the making of Mankiewicz' movie that reportedly answers a lot of these questions. I haven't read Greene's book, so I'm basing my comments above on what I read when the 2002 film came out. I have a copy of the new book on order to find out for myself.
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2. Note from Paul Mavis 4/3/05: You wrote: "I find it impossible to believe that Joseph Mankiewicz would go to all the trouble of filming Greene's book, only to turn its political message on its head."

Believe it, Glenn. This is from my spy book:

Mankiewicz, obviously not revering Greene's work - he called the novel, "a terribly distorted kind of cheap melodrama in which the American was the most idiotic kind of villain" (Kenneth L. Geist, Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, p. 269, 1978) - decided to change the ending of the novel, thus incurring the wrath of the high-brow critics who fancied Greene a more serious writer than he was. Greene had told others that he had written the book in a fit of pique against the American government, an emotion that Mankiewicz found "childish" (Geist, p. 270). Greene, not one to take a hit unanswered, responded: "One could almost believe that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and the author, but the book was based on a closer knowledge of the Indo-China war than the American director possessed, and I am vain enough to believe that the book will survive a few years longer than Mr. Mankiewicz' incoherent picture (Geist, 278).

I think, Glenn, you have to take Mank's liberal politics (distrustful of conservative values) as something other than a willingness to take any side against America (such as Greene's unabashed, vehement hatred for America). - Paul Mavis

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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