2017-05-23

sovay: (Claude Rains)
I knew I would have trouble with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Quiet American (1958). I had known about it for years: it was the bad movie version of a book my parents liked. When a more faithful adaptation was released in 2002, directed by Philip Noyce and starring Michael Caine, it was received with such relief by my mother that I got her the DVD as soon as it came out. When a Mankiewicz retrospective came through the HFA a few years ago, we saw People Will Talk (1951) and Escape (1948) and 5 Fingers (1952) instead. I had already guessed there was no way that a close version of Graham Greene's 1955 novel—a prescient indictment of American involvement in Vietnam—could have made it unscathed through the Hollywood machine in the days of the Red Scare, not to mention imminent U.S. escalation in Vietnam. But it came around a few nights ago on TCM and I thought, all right, let's see how bad this gets.

In its favor, the film is beautifully photographed and cleverly cast. Otherwise it is a deliberate and insulting inversion of Greene's novel and a criminal fucking waste of Michael Redgrave. Spoilers everywhere because otherwise I'll just keep on swearing where the cats can hear me.

I'm a reporter. I'm not involved. )

But of course what Mankiewicz didn't have was the cultural or political permission to film a definitive adaptation of The Quiet American in the late 1950's. Trying to find out what the hell besides McCarthyism had happened to a director I had always considered basically lefty, I ran into the stranger-than-fiction fact that Lansdale—you know, the guy who ran General Thế for the CIA, so popularly if incorrectly associated with the character of Alden Pyle that his authorized biography was titled The Unquiet American (1988)—actually consulted on the film, where by "consulted" I mean "among other input sent Mankiewicz a three-page letter detailing the true history of the bombings at the Place Garnier and encouraging the writer-director to disregard it completely and blame the Communists." Okay, then. The end credits are dedicated "To the people of the Republic of Vietnam—to their chosen President and administrators—our appreciation for their help and kindness," which I doubt Mankiewicz as producer would have been able to secure without assurance of a positive spin on the present state of South Vietnam, five years in the film's future. Both Greene and his novel were banned by Diệm's government. Allen Dulles signed off on the script treatment. I have no idea if I can or should recommend this film to anyone. Certainly it is historically significant, attractive to look at, and it is a truth at least semi-universally acknowledged that Michael Redgrave distraught and disheveled is pretty hot, but as I shouted to [personal profile] spatch, "No amount of hot Michael Redgrave is worth intellectual dishonesty!" Your mileage, I guess. This betrayal brought to you by my engagé backers at Patreon.



1. Murphy had starred as himself in the 1955 screen adaptation of his 1949 autobiography, To Hell and Back.

2. I'd love to be able read her gesture postcolonially, as independent Vietnam rejecting both naïve America and paternal Empire, but I am pretty sure it's just your standard Code-mandated reminder that only heroes get the girl in the end. Either way, casting Phuong's relationship with the American in the light of tragically lost true love romanticizes and retroactively legitimizes his complete failure to see her as a person rather than a symbolic object to be saved.

3. In the 2002 film, she is played by the actually Vietnamese Đỗ Thị Hải Yến and, while she gets very little dialogue compared to her male co-stars, appears to possess an interior life in consonance with the novel, which several times suggests that she sees more than either of the men she lives with. Fowler likens her to a bird, to opium, to her namesake phoenix, to her own country, but he has at least the grace to recognize the existence of her independent self, of which she shares only so much with him: "But even while I made my speech and watched her turn the page . . . I knew I was inventing a character just as much as Pyle was. One never knows another human being; for all I could tell, she was as scared as the rest of us." Quite seriously, if anyone knows of literature or nonfiction revisiting the events of The Quiet American from Phuong's perspective à la Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) or Lauren Wilford's "Possessed: Vertigo Through Her Eyes" (2015), I'd be fascinated.

4. He filmed a similarly liminal Belfast for Reed's Odd Man Out (1947): he had a talent for showing cities as both their documentary selves and their expressionist reflections. I am charmed that his first solo credit as director of photography was Leslie Howard's The Gentle Sex (1943).
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