BR: Quiet American, The (1958)

July 22, 2017 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  July 13, 2017

Genre:  Suspense / Espionage

Synopsis: An idealistic American upsets the already souring romance between a married foreign war correspondent and a young woman in the delicate years preceding the Vietnam War.

Special Features: Isolated Mono Music Track with some Sound Effects / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

Although Graham Greene was less than pleased with the first film version of his 1955 novel, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1958 effort remains a haunting rendition, mostly due to the excellent performances by two leads and actual filming in the relatively new republic of South Vietnam.

Greene’s story of a CIA operative (Pyle) who meddles in the already complex frictions between Vietnamese citizens, French and British colonial powers, and communist forces pushing from the north allowed for sharp critiques of U.S. foreign policy, but Mankiewicz’s script purged all anti-Americanisms, turning an agent into a novice do-gooder who arrives with a plan to start a plastics business and get locals working towards self-sufficiency from colonial powers.

Still retained is the romantic triangle and lies between Pyle, cynical British war correspondent Fowler, and local beauty Phuong, but rather than propel the drama through a series of encounters and tense relationships, the ’58 film is set up as a murder mystery: when Pyle’s body is found floating by a river’s edge, Fowler is brought to the police station by chief Vigot to identify the bloated cadaver. He soon becomes a suspect, and kickstarts the film’s central flashback narrative, with periodic narration by Fowler as he reflects on the gradual erosion of his unlikely relationship with a woman half his age.

The structure feels less clichéd because the use of locations is so striking, sticking to a mix of grubby alleys and country locales as well as chic central city hangouts, like the Hotel Continental where Greene sets several scenes, and where he spent time reporting on the First Indochina War during his years as a war correspondent.

Without the critique of U.S. meddling, Mankiewicz was free to fixate almost exclusively on the revised plot and character conflicts, transforming a political drama into a rather sordid (and certainly tragic) tale of deceit and guilt. Pyle still moves in on Fowler’s girl and she’s eventually pushed to choose one of them, but the guilt Fowler feels as a contributor to Pyle’s death is deserved.

Mankiewicz’ gift for elliptical, Oscar Wildian dialogue is just as evident in Quiet as in his masterwork All About Eve (1950). There are many bon mots and whole passages that convey cynicism, social idiocies, and hypocritical behaviour, and star Michael Redgrave is exceptional as a soulless man who espouses no political opinions, yet loses his objectivity and healthy cynicism when jealousy simmers within.

His downward spiral is emotional rather than physical, but Redgrave does exploit Fowler’s ongoing leg injury that still smarts from a roadside ambush from which Pyle rescued him; it’s as though Fowler’s seething jealousy and his eventual offering up of Pyle to a rebel insurgency prevents a full recovery. There are no winners or losers in the film’s finale, just bruised souls trapped in a sweaty town, locking up emotions to perform the unpleasant jobs to merely stay alive.

Audie Murphy has been quoted as saying he wouldn’t have accepted the role of Pyle had Greene’s volleys against U.S. intervention remained in the script, but in casting Murphy, still regarded today as one of the most heavily decorated soldiers of WWII, Mankiewicz got more than a youthful face. Murphy’s channels his pride in brining American self-reliance to oppressed souls, makes Pyle’s words seem absurdly idealistic instead of earnest; he’s a flawed character who may well have been knocked off by insurgents for trying to empower a class rivals had wanted for their own exploitation, but he’s also a decent fool who genuinely loved Phuong and wanted to bring her and her sister to the U.S. where they could be free from their roles as escorts in a mid-level club frequented by foreigners.

Italian actress Giorgia Moll manages to navigate through the unenviable task of playing Phuong without creating an outright caricature. Mankiewicz tried to distill his flowing packets of dialogue for Phuong, and although not a verbose character, Moll conveys a type of stoicism that’s acceptable because Phuong accepts simple roles to remain safe and emotionally stable: an escort job offered safety and a chance to rise above a working class status; and in meeting Fowler via the club, she initially enjoyed his affection and passion before he quickly took her devotion for granted.

Fowler’s wife in England refuses to allow a divorce (Greene’s version of a stubborn atheist is transformed by Mankiewicz into a pious Catholic who exploits religious fidelity as the only means to control her far off, unfaithful husband), and it’s rather clear that when Pyle appears on the scene, both Phuong and Fowler are in a romantic rut, unable to marry, nor leave the country together, nor appease Phuong’s sister (actress Kerima, who maintained a screen persona as an Algerian-born exotic, but was actually born to French parents).

Claude Dauphin is especially strong as patient, perceptive Vigot, adding tension to Fowler’s interrogation scenes by keeping things too casual, and asking seemingly general questions when it’s clear he’s testing his suspect for hidden facts; he tells Fowler at the end that he’s not personally guilty of Pyle’s murder, but guilty of losing mental clarity and professional fidelity, and in sacrificing a rival lover, becomes a fool for Communist agent Mr. Heng (Richard Loo).

Also strong in the cast is Bruce Cabot (King Kong, The Chase), almost stealing screen attention from Redgrave as a boozing reporter who represents perhaps the film’s only cynical American character.

Time has been quite kind to the ’58 version, especially since it forms a time capsule of Saigon locations, as well as being filmed during the south’s fragile republic. Whether motivated by politics or keeping U.S. censors and government watchdogs content, Mankiewicz tacked on a peculiar final credit which stealthily wishes the new republic’s leader ‘all the best,’ and advising audience members to give the regime ‘a fighting chance’ on the international stage.

Twilight Time’s release presents a surprisingly sharp transfer of a film which on TV looked grainy and washed out. All dissolves are still affected by poor optical processing that soften detail and drain the images of depth, but Robert Krasker’s B&W cinematography is still masterful, being stark, mysterious, soothing, and arresting with a docu-drama feel, especially in the nighttime street and festival scenes.

Mario Nascimbene’s score is ostensibly western, but the composer’s known interest in ethnic instruments and untraditional sounds yields a balance that conveys exoticism, romance, and tragedy, plus a little bit of grit. TT’s disc includes an isolated mono music track with a few cues featuring sound effects, expanding the score from prior soundtrack albums.

UA’s original theatrical trailer is truly awful – either its marketing department had no idea how to sell the film, or whatever team Mankiewicz used lacked the ability to accentuate the characters and hot-button topic of illicit romance in a war-affected, divided country. The trailer emphasizes noting, distills nothing, and feels like a first or second edit slapped together using whatever reels were available in one afternoon.

 

Ah, the romance! The heroism in a world gone mad!

 

Audio Murphy stands his ground as World War III explodes!

 

A romance a trois destined to crash & burn in the fiery maelstrom of simmering Indochina unrest!

 

Julie Kirgo’s essay offers some clarity on the film’s production during the Communist witch hunt era in America, Mankiewicz sneaking in astute and subtle political commentary, and the film’s undeniable virtues. For a work likely regarded by Greene as a travesty of his novel, the story still resonates under Mankiewicz’s baton, and due to the auteur’s wit and fine direction of the cast, it is uncompromisingly tragic. The script sought to appease pro-American, Vietnam interventionists the kind of neutral film they preferred, but disallowed audiences the neat finale they and the film’s distributor expected. Even with a moral closing that suits the whims of the increasingly less-powerful Production Code, Fowler’s anguish and the blow to his will to envision a livable future is quite brutal.

Greene’s novel was re-approached in 2002 by director Phillip Noyce, who cast the film’s leads with more ethnically appropriate actors, and like Mankiewicz, filmed the drama on location in Vietnam.

Other politically-themed films based on works or written for the screen by Graham Greene include The Third Man (1949), Our Man in Havana (1959), The Comedians (1967), England Made Me (1973), The Human Factor (1979), and The Honorary Consul / aka Beyond the Limit (1983).

 

 

© 2017 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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