sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-05-23 11:10 am
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It's been so long since I've played cricket, I want to see what I can do

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.

"Innocence," Greene's narrator thinks to himself at a crucial moment in the novel, "is a kind of insanity." He means it as a general philosophy, but it is the perfect epitaph for the title character, a sweet-natured aid worker by the name of Alden Pyle who arrives from Harvard in the spring of 1952 full of eager political theories about national democracy and a "Third Force" opposing both colonialism and Communism; the discovery of his murder in the first chapter precipitates the cinematic flashback of the rest of the novel. As seen through the jaded, not wholly unreliable eyes of Thomas Fowler, an aging British journalist living in Saigon—technically he's a war correspondent covering hostilities between the French and the Việt Minh, but mostly he drinks and smokes opium and files just enough copy to keep from being recalled home to an England he can describe only as "the scene of my failure" in a divorce plea to his long-estranged, religious wife—Pyle's most characteristic features are his youth and his nationality. The two in fact seem part and parcel of one another, his country's immaturity advertised by his "unmistakably young and unused face" with its air of Ivy League Candide: "With his gangly legs and his crew-cut and his wide campus gaze he seemed incapable of harm." He has something of a rescue complex about Vietnam; he wastes no time in acquiring one about Phuong, Fowler's much younger, Vietnamese lover. But what begins as territorial prickliness toward a sexual rival combined with exasperated amazement at the antics of innocence abroad takes on more complex dimensions as Fowler becomes increasingly aware of the danger this idealistic young man poses to more than his domestic arrangements. Alongside his official attachment to the "Economic Aid Mission," Pyle has "special duties," which is a nice way of saying that he works for the CIA; his innocence and his idealism are inseparable from a naïve neocolonialism that will get not just dozens but hundreds or thousands killed if he's allowed to continue on his bright-eyed, clean-cut, terrifyingly arrogant course. In the wake of a terrorist incident staged by Pyle's much-vaunted, American-backed Third Force, Fowler makes the decision to become complicit in the assassination of the "quiet American." He is not punished for it, by the God he doesn't believe in or the Pascal-reading Inspector Vigot of the Sûreté. He receives word from his wife that she will grant him a divorce after all; he will be able to offer Phuong the marriage she's always wanted, perhaps even take her back to England. In a happy ending as mixed as his motives, nothing worse will befall him from now on than having to live with the knowledge of what he's done—the political rightness, the personal pettiness, the chosen loss of someone who was, after everything, his friend. "Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry."

In Mankiewicz's film, the American—now credited only as "The American," like a pure symbol of his country—is exactly what he appears to be, a fresh-faced, earnest, honest aid worker with ideals up to his gleaming back teeth and the best interests of the Vietnamese people at heart. Inspired to join the "Friends for Free Asia" after hearing the Princeton lectures of a Vietnamese intellectual in exile, he goes about his white-knighting in Saigon without the knowledge or approval of his government, thus neatly removing any suspicion of national strategy from his efforts to build up his "Third Force" through the insurgent General Thé. His love for Phuong is chivalric and indignant, his promises to take her away to America and marry her with the blessing of his well-bred white family and the Episcopal Church absolutely sincere. He is played by Audie Murphy, so he radiates all-American wholesomeness, boyish charm, and heroism without a hint of irony. He keeps his head under fire, he sees first to the injured in a crisis. When Redgrave's Fowler says that "[the American] moved like a hero in a boys' adventure story, wearing his heroism like a scout's badge, and quite unaware of the absurdity and improbability of his adventure," he doesn't mean it as a compliment, but the American audience that followed one of its most decorated war heroes from real-life valor to silver-screen celebrity1 would understand that this cynical journalist who masks with professional neutrality his unwillingness to commit himself to anything has merely lost touch with the tenacity of heroism in a fallen world. It's incarnated now by the aw-shucks gallantry of Texas rather than the scholarly gentility of New England, but the impenetrable innocence is the same and this time it's a virtue. This quiet American is quixotic like Man of La Mancha, not like Cervantes. His only crime is expecting from others the same sense of fair play he strives to offer all comers, even when it manifests in gestures of such ridiculous honesty as trekking dangerous miles up country from Saigon to declare his interest in another man's mistress, so as not to run the risk of courting her behind her lover's back. "Not that I'm too sure how scrupulous you are, away from the widescreen world of romance," Fowler needles his rival, once again associating him with movies, popular fiction, unreality. He thinks the American is too good to be true. Whatever doubts the film may allow in its first two acts, by the finale it will assure us that he was both good and true. Also, definitely, not CIA.

As the American is exonerated by Mankiewicz's script, so Fowler is condemned. Far from having his political conscience—however sharpened by self-interest—awakened by a superpower's cavalier disposal of civilian lives in pursuit of ideological supremacy, Redgrave's Fowler acts out of nothing more than the panicky jealousy of "a desperate, middle-aged, middle-class husband trying to hang on to an extracurricular fling." Worse yet, in his terror of losing Phuong he allows his skeptical reporter's instincts to become sidetracked by his readiness to believe the worst of his rival. As Claude Dauphin's Inspector Vigot explains in the Poirot-like denouement, the American's part in the bombing of Saigon's Place Garnier was fabricated by the Communists to discredit and disrupt his effective winning of hearts and minds. The bombing itself was actually Communist work, falsely blamed on the Third Force's General Thé for the same reasons. The novel's cover story of American imports becomes the film's innocent fact, the novel's accurate assignment of American responsibility becomes the film's treacherous fiction, and Fowler who thought himself such a canny old Vietnam hand stands revealed as a dupe and apologist of the Communists, having borne out better than his rival lived to see the stinging truth of the American's nearly last words: "Like an adolescent boy who keeps on using dirty words all the time because he doesn't want anyone to think he doesn't know what it's all about. You're going to hate this, but I think you're one of the most truly innocent men I'll ever know." Vigot puts the case even less kindly: "If you will pardon my attempt at colloquial English, Mr. Fowler, they have made a bloody fool of you." Still reeling from the ease with which he was led up the garden path by his own insecurities, Fowler is further punished by receiving at last his longed-for divorce from his wife only to be conclusively rejected by Phuong when he approaches her at the Rendez-Vous: she would rather work as an escort than resume her relationship with the fool and liar responsible for the death of the man she really loved.2 At least Holly Martins knew what he was signing up for, waiting for Anna Schmidt to walk past him at the end of Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949). Blindsided Fowler wanders away into the crowd, swallowed up and lost in the noise and music of the Tết celebrations with which the film and its striking lion-dance credits opened. I wanted to take a shower to get the propaganda out of my hair. It was disturbingly sticky and quite possibly would have tested positive for Edward Geary Lansdale's DNA.

The Quiet American was not an autobiography. Greene addressed the assumption directly in an interview in 1956: "Everybody thinks I am Fowler—well, I share some of his views about the Americans. But I'm not as bitter about them as he is. I didn't have my girl stolen by an American." That said, he began work on the novel in the spring of 1952, after several months on assignment for Life magazine in South Vietnam. The article he wrote on the ambivalent progress of the French against the Việt Minh ended up in the Paris Match that summer; he would publish further reports from return visits in New Republic, the Listener, and the Times. He had been separated from his wife since 1947, though in accordance with the Catholic traditions which she still observed, they never divorced. I got nothing on in-country girlfriends, but he was open about his use of opium as both recreation and self-medication, having tried it first in Vietnam in 1951. In his autobiography, he acknowledged lifting Pyle's dream of a Vietnamese Third Force from an encounter with "an American attached to an economic aid mission—the members were assumed by the French, probably correctly, to belong to the CIA." With these facts in mind, it is difficult not to see the 1958 Quiet American as a none too subtle swipe at the novel's author, holding him up as the self-same dupe and apologist as his rewritten antihero. Mankiewicz meticulously preserves the chain of evidence which leads Fowler to realize that the American is supplying General Thé with bomb-making materials imported in the guise of innocuous plastics for children's toys only to yank it all out from under the character in the most metatextually eviscerating manner possible. "It's a fictitious name," Vigot impresses on the sweating journalist, who saw the light in his own window and raced up the stairs to find, instead of Phuong returned, a dapper little French-accented embodiment of Nemesis in an ice cream suit. "There is no product, plastics or otherwise, American or otherwise, that is called Diolacton." Perfectly true, Greene invented it, but the insufficient reality of a MacGuffin never stopped Hollywood before. Already beginning to sense that something dreadful lies ahead, Fowler retorts with defensive flippancy, "What difference does it make?" The answer he gets from Vigot would do the era of alternative facts proud: "If this were a work of fiction, an entertainment, there would be none. But you have applied it to a very real historic disaster." In January 1952, when Greene was still doing his initial reporting from Saigon and Hanoi, a double bombing outside the Hôtel Continental and the Hôtel de Ville in Saigon killed ten people outright and wounded dozens more. The carnage was immortalized in a Life "Picture of the Week." You may note that the caption attributes responsibility to "Viet Minh Communists," even though credit had already been claimed in a radio broadcast by General Trình Minh Thế of the Liên Minh, a former officer of the Cao Đài now promoting himself as an alternative to both the French and the Việt Minh. Starting in 1954, Thế and his "National Resistance Front" would be sponsored by the CIA—in the person of the aforementioned Lansdale—in exactly the same fashion as his fictional counterpart, even considered as a replacement for Ngô Đình Diệm until Thế's assassination a few months before the rigged national referendum of 1955. Greene swapped car bombs for bicycle bombs and otherwise transferred the event wholesale into The Quiet American, with credit given where credit was due. It was all but restaged for the 1958 film in the square where it really happened the first time. That's the historical disaster that Vigot charges Fowler with irresponsibly fictionalizing, willingly confusing American plastics with explosive plastique in a fantasia of American guilt that was really only plain old Communist duplicity. He leans on the journalist's profession, reminding him that while knives and the river could take care of the American himself, "someone was required to help assassinate the idea—someone gifted in the use of words." This is not the only time in the movie that Fowler's literary skills are called into moral question. In the bar of the Continental, when he suggests that "a few bad motives" on the American's part "might help [him] to understand a little more about human beings," the young man ripostes, "You know, for people as expert with them as you are, the use of certain words should be licensed, like guns. Words such as 'human beings' and 'understanding.' In your hands, they're a menace to society." Vigot wrapping up his enlightening exposé in Fowler's flat dismisses the popular idea that Communism attracts the "mentally advanced" with his observation that "this is only true when the mentally advanced are also emotionally retarded," implicit case in point the tall Englishman bracing himself against the balcony doors, looking out into the Saigon night so as not to have to look anyone, especially himself, in the face. Oh, those Commies, always willing to sacrifice their own people in nefarious plots to frustrate democracy. Oh, those writers, those intellectuals, always willing to delude themselves and others for the sake of a shiny idea.

In another context, I might admire this thorough deconstruction of the source material. Under the circumstances, I want to reach through time and shake Mankiewicz until he rattles. He had all the materials for a definitive adaptation of the novel. Redgrave is so good as even a blunted version of Thomas Fowler that I wish I could have seen him as the real thing, with his political acumen as well as his cynicism, his dissipation, and his startling intensity of love intact. One of the hallmarks of the character as written is his own curious innocence: while he sees the lethal naïveté of Pyle clearly enough, he's poignantly wrong about much of himself. He really believes he's achieved political indifference, but finds himself taking sides strongly enough to cost a man's life; he talks lightly of his relationship with Phuong, but can't—and suddenly doesn't even want to—perform sexually with an opium-house prostitute who turns out to wear the same perfume. More disturbing than the actions these discoveries lead him to is the final awareness that he is no longer "not engagé," if he ever truly was: "I had become as engagé as Pyle, and it seemed to me that no decision would ever be simple again." Redgrave doesn't get any of these moments (the Production Code alone would have kiboshed the prostitute), but he conveys with devastating compassion the slow-motion panic attack of a man discovering despite his best efforts what kind of person he really is, not the detached observer, the sophisticated kibitzer, ultra-disillusioned and faintly amused by it all, but a bleeding heart as vulnerable and blundering as any American aid worker "saving the East with powdered milk, DDT, and the fireman's lift." He fights the realization with bland little shrugs and relentlessly acid wit, drawling provocations like "We're not a couple of movie Marines—you're not even going to get the girl in the end," spitting out the more revealing frustration of "I'm fed to the teeth with your brothers-under-the-skin drivel about cellophane-wrapped security for the atomic future!" The English language itself becomes a retreating battleground, with "hi" for "hello" and "gasoline" for "petrol" marking the inexorable American advance. Even his adopted city alters around him, its familiar alleys and bridges bleaching into the unchartable territory of film noir as the world behind the world seems to reveal itself to him in all its perfectly dovetailing conspiracy. Forty-nine at the time of filming, Redgrave is well set up but rumpled, with something of the hollow look of Joseph Losey's Time Without Pity (1957) in his sweat-backed white shirts with the sleeves rolled up—the American accommodates to the tropical heat with T-shirts when necessary, but Fowler clings to the illusion of English coolness and reserve and visibly suffers for it. Nobody in the film gets the line about innocence as insanity, but he's plainly the character to apply it to. He's wrong about everything, the American, the Communists, himself, Phuong, and when Redgrave implodes he does it like Van Heflin or Peter Cushing, absolutely no self-consciousness as the façade falls apart and then everything beneath it. I know he was disappointed with the film and I don't blame him for it, but I hope he was at least able to recognize what he salvaged out of a character who'd had the better part of his essential ambiguity deleted. With the full text available, he might have turned in one of the all-time great interpretations of Greeneland.

Meanwhile, Murphy is surprisingly effective as the indefatigably decent American, at least until it turns out he was the hero all along. Unlike Redgrave who can get under a character's skin with a tightening of his mouth or a lift of his brows, Murphy's acting has a slightly opaque quality that may well be the consequence of a limited range, but it works here because the viewer feels along with Fowler that there must be more to his goodwill than meets the eye, but it's solid surface all the way down. Especially if audiences of the time would have taken the actor's presence as guarantee of the character's integrity, he would have been brilliant as Greene's Pyle, his youthful authority and his unquestioning faith in his country assuming terrible implications without a suggestion of hypocrisy—all scrubbed shining optimism that doesn't care how much blood gets splashed on its shoes so long as freedom and democracy are defended the American way. We did it on the beaches of Anzio, boys, we can do it in the marshes of the Mekong. Run that into 1968 if you can. I can't say much about Phuong according to Mankiewicz; she is played by Italian actress Giorgia Moll in whatever you call yellowface when it's in black and white and until her last scene generally enacts the pliant, childlike, sexually available but emotionally mysterious stereotype that songs like Magdalen Hsu-Li's "Submissive" were written to kick in the teeth.3 Dauphin's Vigot feels more like a one-man band of roving exposition than the philosophy-minded, not unfriendly inspector of the novel, but at least he puts a lot of expression into it. The extras celebrating Tết with fireworks and drums look like they're having a good time.

I genuinely love the cinematography. The Quiet American was the first feature film with permission to shoot in Vietnam and DP Robert Krasker takes every opportunity for local color in a remarkably un-exoticizing way, documenting the streets and the squares and the people going about their lives and even a Caodaist procession (although it was a protest rather than a religious observance) with a beautifully judged mix of newsreel distance and chiaroscuro intimacy. He does gorgeous things with night scenes, pure black spaces against which faces and rivers and lanterns and reeds and torched cars and murdered corpses are reflected and illuminated with such meticulous noir depth, it is almost possible to forget the damage they represent. He handles daylight with complementary ambiguity, showing plainly things will reveal their true meanings only long and painfully after the fact. I should not have been surprised that he won an Oscar for his work on The Third Man, in the blasted, fantastic night-world of postwar Vienna.4 The scenes taking place in the war zone of Phát Diệm are low-key and sweaty, suggesting dusk-to-dawn heat and nerve-stretching boredom with little more than overlapping shadows and thin glares of electric light and the monotonous irregularity of mortar fire in the background. When Fowler discovers that Phuong has left him for the American, instead of whipping around the abandoned flat to mimic his anxious search for the flowering tree she's been tending for the New Year, the portable shrine where she used to light incense, her clothes in their lacquered dresser, the camera steadily takes in each confirming absence and then holds just a beat too long for comfort on the drawn-down tremble of Fowler's mouth before he lets himself down on the edge of the empty, neatly made bed; he's crying before he can even get his face safely behind his hands. In the aftermath of the bombing in front of the Hôtel Continental, burning cars blacken to exoskeletons and ambulances rush wailing to the scene and the crowds surge forward against the cordon of police and none of it is ear-ringing shaky-cam, it might be the ten o'clock news. The bloom of flame through the palm fronds on the road from Tây Ninh convinced me that whoever shot Apocalypse Now (1979) for Coppola had seen The Quiet American first. All of this makes it even more infuriating that the location shooting (interiors were done at Cinecittà in Rome) was in the right place at the right time for history as it was still happening and the movie merely used its authenticity to fake up a story of America good, Communism bad, and everyone who doesn't know it already a Commie tool, not at all incidentally muddying popular U.S. understanding of the war we were already fighting and wouldn't formally lose for another seventeen years.

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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