“I like to have a secret love affair, a hidden life,” said Graham Greene, “something to lie about.” Partly, that hidden life was espionage, but mostly it was adultery. Greene was married and he had a special liking for clandestine liaisons with the wives of his friends. Constancy or faith versus betrayal—religious, sexual, personal, political—his best works pivot around these dichotomies, intensifying the tension between them without trying to resolve it. Greene’s protagonists must somehow live with their bad consciences, as Greene evidently managed to live with his. I imagine he justified the betrayals by telling himself that his friends brought it upon themselves.
Innocence, to Greene’s mind, at any rate, was blameworthy. The quiet American, Pyle, was naive, idealistic, and dangerous: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” The cynical journalist who narrates the novel, Fowler, is prepared to lie and cheat to keep Phuong, his Vietnamese mistress, from running off with Pyle.
Ultimately, Fowler betrays Pyle but like Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, he faces himself squarely. “Was I so different from Pyle, I wondered? Must I too have my foot thrust in the mess of life before I saw the pain?” He doesn’t like himself much, but he’s not asking us to like him either. Rather, he forces us to face uncomfortable truths about the West’s imperial blunders. No heroes, no victims, no illusions, just an open-eyed appraisal of the mess of life, and love, and geopolitics, mistakes played out endlessly for the most venal of motives.
And that’s what’s wrong with both film versions of The Quiet American. Neither Joseph Mankiewicz nor Philip Noyce could leave well enough alone. Mankiewicz reworked key elements of the story to counter what he saw as Greene’s anti-Americanism, turning Pyle into a cartoonish good guy, a boy scout from Texas (Greene’s Pyle was a Harvard man, originally from Ohio). Fowler’s the fool here. Othello-like, he is blinded by jealousy and allows himself to be played by the Communists. Mankiewicz even has him read Othello’s speech as he sets the American up for assassination, to make sure the audience gets the point.
The 2002 version directed by Philip Noyce from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan is more true to Greene’s novel, but the ending turns Fowler into a hero, the crusader-journalist beloved of audiences at least since The Pentagon Papers. “Noyce’s finale montage recycles the myth that the press somehow saved the United States from itself,” William Bushnell wrote in his contribution to Why We Fought: America’s Wars in Film and History. “Mankiewicz’s 1958 film remains an artifact of Cold War ideology, frozen in history. Likewise, Noyce’s 2002 film is wedded to a post-Vietnam subjectivity and is no less a product of an era.”