The battle over „The Quiet American” (part two)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1958 film version of The Quiet American was a polemical answer to Graham Greene’s novel – literary adaptation as (politically driven) literary criticism. More than that, it was an operation meant to “correct” the novel, to replace it in the public consciousness, to neutralize it: literary adaptation as propagandistic damage control.

Like another Cold War cinematic operation – the feature-length British cartoon made in 1954 (by filmmakers Joy Batchelor and John Halas) from George Orwell’s Animal Farm – it “benefitted” from the CIA’s involvement in its production, even if involvement in The Quiet American was strictly advisory, not financial. The advisor was Edward Lansdale, chief of the CIA’s Saigon military mission, who later in his life would be followed by persistent rumors that he had served as Graham Greene’s real-life model for the “quiet” American in his novel, Alden Pyle. A 1956 letter from Lansdale to Mankiewicz has survived, concerning, among other things, the real-life bomb explosion of January 1952 (in front of Saigon’s Continental Hotel), used by Greene in his novel as a pivotal moment.

Lansdale-Mankiewicz-letter-page-0Lansdale encourages Mankiewicz to pin the attack on the Vietminh, even if in real life, as in Greene’s novel, it had been claimed by the renegade General Thé. (In Greene’s novel, the bombs are also provided, through the American Economic Aid Mission, by CIA operative Pyle, who hopes to turn Thé and his army into a “Third Force”, which, backed by the U.S. and supported by the local population, would go on fighting the Communists after the departure of the French.) As Lansdale reminds Mankiewicz, General Thé, who had died in 1955 (while Greene was getting his novel ready for publication in Britain), “is quite a national hero for his fight against the Bing Xuyen [another independent military force]”. In fact, as Greene was writing his novel, Lansdale had seriously considered using General Thé in a very Pyle-like scenario – turning him into a U.S.-sponsored Vietnamese nationalist leader. In the meantime, he had found someone better: Ngo Dinh Diem, who was serving as President of South Vietnam when Mankiewicz came to shoot (part of) his Quiet American. (Shooting was completed at the Cinecittà Studios in Italy.) President Diem is actually turned into a – heroic – character in Mankiewicz’s film, even though he stays off-screen and he is not mentioned by name. (Mankiewicz’s film also carried in its end credits a dedication to Diem, which would become embarrassing five years later, after Diem’s corrupt and brutal puppet-regime had been overthrown – once again with the blessing of the United States.) Writing to President Diem himself after having seen Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American, Lansdale assured him that the film “will help win more friends for you and Vietnam. When I first mentioned this motion picture to you last year, I had read Mr. Mankiewicz’s ‘treatment’ of the story and had thought it an excellent change from Mr. Greene’s novel of despair. Mr. Mankiewicz has done much more with the picture itself, and I now feel that you will be very pleased with the reactions of those who see it.”

The film

quiet american 1958 2

Played by real-life World War II hero Audie Murphy, Mankiewicz’s Alden Pyle (unlike Greene’s) doesn’t provide General Thé with American materials for fabricating bombs. He does believe in a “Third Force”, but it’s not Thé; it’s “a prominent Vietnamese living in exile in New Jersey [at the time when the story is set: 1952]”. This great man, whom Pyle met and befriended while a student at Princeton, is clearly Ngo Dinh Diem, who would go on to be for a time – encompassing the shooting of the movie we are watching – President of Vietnam. Pyle does approach General Thé, but only in order to investigate whether Thé would support Diem when the latter returns to Vietnam. Moreover, this Pyle is not with the CIA; he is on his own. (He doesn’t work for the Economic Aid Mission, as he did in Greene’s novel; here he is affiliated with a charitable organization – Friends for Free Asia.) He only approaches General Thé out of friendship for Diem, in whose potential as a democratic nationalist leader, capable of stopping the advance of Communism in South-East Asia, he deeply believes. He is doing this in his spare time, when he is not importing American plastic to help the local toy industry. This is the very plastic which Fowler comes to believe – because he is a dupe of the Communists, who manipulate his sexual jealousy and his prejudiced anti-Americanism – is being used to fabricate explosives.

So far, so shameless. But, shameless as it is, it is also a sophisticated work. In front of a wide audience, it dramatizes a debate – a confrontation of ideas – with Greene’s critical, “anti-American” novel, and, although the debate is rigged so that the novel and its author would be discredited, the very willingness to enter it, the assumption that a wide audience would be interested, lend it an interest and an immediacy lacking from the later, faithful adaptation of Greene’s novel – the 2002 Quiet American, directed by Phillip Noyce from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan.

Mankiewicz starts by following very closely Greene’s scene-by-scene breakdown and his dialogue, while using his own facility with aphoristic repartee to sharpen Pyle’s dialogue, his comebacks to the Englishman’s caustic attacks. Working steadily to improve Pyle’s game, Mankiewicz does it in a manner that is at first discreet: in the beginning, his Pyle just holds his own in the arguments with the Englishman Fowler (which is more than the book’s Pyle ever did). A sample:

“PYLE: You haven’t answered my question yet.

FOWLER: Which? I’m afraid I’ve forgotten.

PYLE: You were saying that nothing rises from its ashes nowadays. Whether that was opinion or fact.

FOWLER: I suggest that you ask the dead: French or Communist, it doesn’t matter – their ashes can’t be told apart.

PYLE: What about the living?

FOWLER: They want not to be dead.

PYLE: Doesn’t it matter how they live?

FOWLER: If you mean does it matter whether they stay alive under French colonialism or Chinese Communism, the answer is no, it does not.”

This exchange, which occurs early in the film, is still dominated by Fowler, like all the exchanges in the book. But there’s a cool, sure, sustained pressure in Pyle’s questioning of Fowler, which already signals that this quiet American, baby-faced and cowboy-voiced as he is (Mankiewicz took the tactical decison of making him a Texan – i.e., more “all-American”, less “aristocratic” than Greene’s Bostonian), is going to stand his ground.

THE QUIET AMERICAN

American writer Robert Stone has described Greene’s Alden Pyle as always speaking “with a straight man’s timing”, like all the other Americans in the novel: “That is, they do not understand or respond to the witticisms offered at their expense. For them, words cast no shadows; they are deaf to irony: Pyle, Bill Granger, all of them, stand mute before Fowler’s very cinematic wisecracks. Pyle and the others refuse to be drawn, like Margaret Dumont subjected to Groucho Marx. They persistently offer their puppyish friendship (‘Do you mind if I call you Tom?’) in the face of Fowler’s insults.” Mankiewicz’s Pyle is not like that: although in the beginning he holds back, content to just hold his own against Fowler, he slowly emerges from the action as a witty, eloquent Pyle, capable of matching Fowler well-phrased barb for well-phrased barb, and, most crucially, capable of seeing through Fowler, of reading his motives, of seeing him more clearly than he sees himself. (At least that’s how Mankiewicz redesigned the character on paper; on screen, Audie Murphy’s delivery of his lines never makes the most of them.)

Conversely, Fowler, as re-envisioned by Mankiewicz (and magnificently played by Michael Redgrave), is from the very beginning more uncomfortable in his own skin (or more obviously uncomfortable) than the book’s Fowler, who has an answer to everything. Redgrave, who is of Greene’s generation (he was born in 1908; Greene – in 1904), does upper-middle-class sarcasm and prejudiced condescension superlatively. (Not only does he patronize Pyle, but he also condescends unpleasantly to his young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong, in front of Pyle, congratulating her on her “longest consecutive passage [to date] in almost-English”, and ordering her about as if she were a servant. In the novel, the 20-year old Vietnamese woman’s subservience to this middle-aged Englishman is depicted with not enough critical awareness – a weakness that Mankiewicz pounces on.) Crucially, Redgrave is also a master at playing neurotic weakness. The film’s mission is to cut through his Fowler’s air of superiority and to expose him; and, by exposing him, to also expose the British author who created him. The film is planned as a relentless, annihilating drubbing administered to both Fowler and his creator. Fowler starts by acting superior to everybody and ends by breaking apart. It is Pyle who starts working on him – after a while he starts winning arguments, scoring points against the Englishman. After Pyle dies, another character takes over from him the work of castigating and chastising Fowler and Greene: it’s the French colonial policeman Vigot (Claude Dauphin), turned by Mankiewicz into a very pro-American French policeman. And Vigot, too, steps aside in the film’s final minutes, allowing Phuong herself to finish Fowler off.

All of these characters seem to have read the negative reviews which Greene’s novel had received in the U.S. “Your anti-Americanisms are pretty worn-out”, Pyle remarks to Fowler, seizing on what is also a vulnerable point in the novel (in which narrator Fowler rants against things like refrigerators and air-conditioned lavatories, and Greene does little to create some critical distance around his diatribes). And Pyle adds a punch-line: “Some of them [Fowler’s anti-Americanisms] have become anti-British by now.” Indeed, the inexorable march of Americanization is one of the film’s slyly pursued themes: even the Communist agent declares himself addicted to American chewing-gum, while the French policeman tastes (admittedly not without disgust) a Coca-Cola from Pyle’s reserve (while noting admiringly that, on the other hand, Pyle – that is Mankiwicz’s Pyle, not Greene’s – listened to Debussy).

Pyle also accuses Fowler of fantasizing and raving: he dismisses as “cloak-and-dagger nonsense” Fowler’s talk of how the U.S., in trying to create a local “nationalist” force, are arming rogue generals with explosives, thus financing massacres of civilians. Terms like these had also been used by American commentators to dismiss the criticism offered by Greene in his novel. At the time, the American public was not yet used to seeing U.S. involvement abroad depicted as murderous (except by the Communist enemy). The plot dreamed up by Greene seems to have struck many as malevolent and also fantastic – an opium-smoker’s evil hallucinations. He was taken to task – not always disingenuously – for irresponsibly “creating a fantasy [with a villain: the U.S.A] out of a very real historical disaster”. And these are exactly the terms in which the film’s Vigot, taking over from Pyle, chastises Fowler. When Pyle praises Fowler’s skill with words, while bemoaning his irresponsible use of them (and he does this repeatedly in the film), it’s Mankiewicz speaking over him, and it’s Greene – presumed to be staying behind Fowler – whom he’s addressing. And what about the scene in which Pyle tauntingly suggests to the atheist Fowler that he should join the Catholic Church? “You must need some repository for the guilt and self-loathing you feel about yourself as a human being”, Pyle says. And he goes on: “Choose [a church] that would hear your sins, or at least your version of them, and give you absolution”. This speech makes scant sense, except as a cruel jab at Greene’s catholicism – notorious at the time, but not salient in The Quiet American. As for Fowler’s mask of hard-won, world-weary wisdom, it has to be torn off his face, exposing a naïveté about the world (and also an abject fear of it) far beyond what Fowler himself had (mistakenly) thought he detected in Pyle. Once again, it is the young American who does the unmasking in Mankiewicz’s name. Staring straight into Fowler’s soul, he compares him to an adolescent boy who keeps using dirty words because “he doesn’t want anyone to think he doesn’t know what it’s all about”. And the punch-line is: “I know you’ll hate this, but I think you’re one of the most truly innocent men I’ll ever know.” Thus is Fowler – Greene’s glamorously bitter man of experience – unmanned.

And Mankiewicz’s movie is not yet done with him: he has to be criticized, by the Frenchman Vigot, for having an inadequate grasp of French, confusing the word plastique – which refers to a well-known, malleable, putty-like explosive – with American plastic. According to the film’s Vigot, it is this misunderstanding which allowed Fowler to become so easily persuaded of Pyle’s guilt – of his having smuggled into Vietnam American materials for building bombs. In a 1973 Positif interview with Michel Ciment, Mankiewicz, playing literary detective, suggested that Graham Greene’s inspiration for the plot of his novel came from the same misunderstanding: “Greene, whose French was far from perfect, had translated the French explosive ‘plastique’ as the English ‘plastics’, which in French means plastic materials. Throughout the whole book he spoke of exploding plastic materials!” Mankiewicz’s Quiet American is literary adaptation as demolition.

At the end of the novel, Fowler is left with a sense of desolation – despite having served justice in helping eliminate Pyle, and despite having got Phuong back. He is left with no one to confess to, with no peace of mind, with no redemption in sight. The film’s Fowler is left in an incomparably worse state: although he is neither killed nor imprisoned for his complicity in the American’s assassination, he is punished again and again. (Phuong doesn’t come back to him; she tells him off like everybody else.) And, as he is being punished, he is being used as a stand-in for his British author. Hollywood’s 1958 version of The Quiet American is a piece of ideological warfare in which adapting a novel is understood as engaging an enemy, as retaliating for an insult. A hostile American reviewer of the novel, New Yorker’s A. J. Liebling, had called it “a nasty little plastic bomb”. The Hollywood adaptation was a Cold War attempt to defuse it. Repulsive in a number of ways, even odious, the operation was also (leaving aside matters of morality) carried out by Joseph L. Mankiewicz with skill and gusto. An interesting historical document, it is a richer film than the politically honorable 2002 version, notwithstanding such 1950s Hollywood conventions as having Phuong played by Italian actress Giorgia Moll and her sister played by Hollywood all-purpose exotic Kerima.

giorgia moll

The ferocity (or bad faith) with which the 1958 Quiet American – which was an act of Cold War – engaged with the enemy’s ideas lent it immediacy. The 2002 version – in which Hollywood at last makes it up to Greene – lacks any such immediacy. By 2002, of course, the murderous CIA meddler abroad had become a stock character; he was no longer news – the shocking news that Greene had once brought, generating disbelief and outrage and ferocious retaliation. The 2002 Quiet American is a safely “historical” picture – and its director, Phillip Noyce, lays on thick the nostalgic-exotic trappings. It is also compressed, streamlined, with little patience for the talky, protracted confrontations of political views found in both Greene’s novel and Mankiewicz’s 1958 answer to it. And if Michael Redgrave’s Fowler was a believable upper-middle-class Englishman of Greene’s own generation, constantly projecting the worldview of that age and class, its prejudices etc., Michael Caine’s 2002 version is just a generic Hollywood Englishman of our time. This Fowler doesn’t even condescend to Pyle’s Americanness; he condescends only to Pyle’s youth, and only slightly. For all his colonial entitlement to a young Vietnamese mistress and for all his willingness to play dirty in love, lying to her and to his rival, he is mostly just wise and sad, with little of the venom of Greene’s – and Redgrave’s – creation.

Redgrave was also a first-class on-screen fretter, good at smoking nervously or striking defensive poses with his hands stuck in his pockets or crossed on his chest.

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Michael Redgrave as Mankiewicz’s Fowler-Greene and Claude Dauphin as Vigot

Maybe off-screen, too: during the 1950s, while he was appearing in anti-Communist films like The Quiet American or Michael Anderson’s 1956 adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, he was under MI5 surveillance, suspected of Communist leanings (Orwell himself had indicated him as a suspect). In 1958 – the year in which his anti-Communist version of The Quiet American had its premiere – he also toured the Soviet Union with a theatrical production of Hamlet, taking time to consort with British defector (and fellow-homosexual) Guy Burgess. (A few years later, another British spy, Kim Philby, would famously defect to Moscow. Graham Greene would visit him every time he found himself in the Soviet Union.) Michael Redgrave was knighted two years later and MI5 closed their file on him (which can be read online) in 1961. (One of the last items in the file concerns his daughter, Vanessa Redgrave: then in her early twenties, and on her way to becoming a major actress and a radical-left spokesperson, she was fined in 1961 after participating in an anti-nuclear demonstration.) The participation of Michael Redgrave, with his troubled, enigmatic biography, only enriches the historical texture of Hollywood’s 1958 version of The Quiet American.

 

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