The Quiet American

“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.

Quiet American, The (1958)
Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy in Mankiewicz’s 1958 film. Redgrave is wonderful, but nobody can save a picture singlehandedly.

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. Absent is Greene’s irony, his disparagement of the American as a simple-minded meddler, blind (notwithstanding his Harvard education — or perhaps because of it) to the complex reality of the country he has come to save. 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.

Caine’s pretty wonderful too, and the 2002 film is well worth watching.

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.”

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a brilliant film. It just isn’t Greene.

4 thoughts on “The Quiet American

  1. Graham Greene is another of the many novelists—one has to call him that despite his claim that some of his books were mere “entertainments” rather than serious fiction—whose work I’ve read about but haven’t read. (Incidentally, if you have a recommendation for the best first encounter with his writing, I’d be glad to hear it.) I’ve seen the second film version of The Quiet American and appreciate your remarks on it, the first film, and the source novel. I have to agree that Michael Caine’s performance makes the second film worth seeing. One can say many things about what makes an actor great, but a part of it is just that a great actor is always interesting, always rewards your attention, and that’s true of Caine in pretty much everything I can think of.

    “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”: to some degree your description of Greene’s work reminds me of the TV series Manhattan, the first season of which I began watching recently. In some ways the writing isn’t as accomplished as I’d like; for one thing, some of the conflicts seem a bit blunt. But I still think—now with the advantage of partly knowing what I’m talking about—that it’s a fascinating cross between noirish drama and wartime history. I intend to send the discs to you as soon as I finish zipping through them.

    A side note: By a circuitous route I found myself thinking of Vanessa Redgrave, which led me to wonder whether you’ve read the novel Atonement or seen the film version. I hesitate ever to use superlatives and other grand declarations, but I think I can say the film was stunning.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your reflections, John. I’d recommend The Quiet American as the gateway book to Greene, actually. Get the edition with Robert Stone’s intro if you can (I just reread both book and intro and appreciated Stone’s insights). I’ll look forward to receiving the discs of Manhattan. We’ve been at loose ends since finishing up Foyle’s War, waiting impatiently for the new season of Endeavour and Sherlock.

    I wasn’t enamored of the novel Atonement but you’re not the first person who’s recommended the film. Tonight we’re off to see Spotlight, but I’ll keep Atonement in mind.


  3. I adored Atonement too, actually, but it was very much my kind of film – costume drama, idle rich, thwarted love affair, misunderstanding. And it looked wonderful.


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