The Cimarron Kid

Another Western, you say? But why this one? Even the director, Budd Boetticher, admitted it wasn’t very good. Audie Murphy wasn’t right for the part of the Cimarron Kid. “He’s sensitive, he’s got taste, and guts.” Presumably those qualities weren’t wanted for Bill Doolin, the character Murphy plays. Doolin comes across as a reluctant outlaw, a crack shot who takes no pleasure in using his weapon and seems pained to be leading a life of crime.

I’ve got a rule of my own that might do you good to remember: there will be no killing unless it’s forced upon us.

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Murphy on the left, with some of the Daltons. Natty dressers, the lot of them.

Other members of his gang have cool, tough guy nicknames like Bitter Creek and Dynamite Dick. Granted, Murphy’s short stature (he was 5’5”) made him well-suited for “kid” roles—he played Billy in The Kid From Texas a year earlier—but here he’s too well-dressed to be plausible as the defacto leader of a gang of ruthless bank robbers. Really, he just wants to hang out with his girl.

Murphy had an image to keep up. Three years earlier, he’d published a best-selling memoir about his wartime experiences, To Hell and Back (1949). A World War II hero, and a Texas boy who really could ride a horse and shoot, he was surprisingly humble in his book. People liked that about him: Audie got the job done.

Of course, there was more to it. Murphy didn’t become the most decorated combat soldier in US military history without tremendous suffering. He was involved in some of the worst battles of the European theater, including Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and Southern France, where he saw his closest friends die. Half-crazed, he single-handedly wiped out an entire German squad in the Ardennes; wounded, he also managed to commandeer a burning tank, using its .50 caliber machine gun to drive the enemy away.

He would be plagued by nightmares for the rest of his life and was, as Boetticher recognized, “a complicated young man.” But audiences saw only the earnest kid. At the end of this picture, he agrees to go to jail. with his girlHis girl promises she’ll be waiting for him when he gets out. Not your typical Western ending, but it fit with the image of the damaged, war weary young veteran.

Gregory McNames quotes his New York Times obituary. “When Murphy was asked how soldiers such as he managed to overcome the horrors he had seen, he replied, ‘I don’t think they ever do.’ ” That message doesn’t come across in The Cimarron Kid as strongly as in Shane, but you can’t help feeling sorry for Murphy in this picture.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai casino run by Mother Gin Sling is like Disneyland for the depraved: a stately pleasure dome (to borrow Coleridge’s phrase from “Kubla Khan,” his opium-induced fantasy poem about the East) where Westerners go to indulge in illicit activities. tierney“It smells so incredibly evil,” says Gene Tierney, who’s there to do a little slumming. “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. . . Anything could happen here.”

Fresh out of finishing school—and absolutely stunning in this role—Tierney’s character “Poppy” is easily corrupted. She can’t wait to lose control. Seduced by Victor Mature’s fez-wearing Persian gigolo, she’s soon addicted to drugs and reduced to pawning her jewelry to pay her gambling debts. It’s all part of Mother Gin Sling’s plan to wreak revenge on Poppy’s father (Walter Huston), a wealthy Englishman who’d toyed with her years earlier, taken advantage of her innocence, then tossed her aside when she became pregnant.

Ona Munson, the white actress who plays Mother Gin Sling in yellowface, is lacquered to within an inch of her life in her dragon lady hairdo. Hosting a dinner party in her private quarters, she has her bare-chested minion (professional wrestler Mike Mazurki, billed simply as “The Coolie” in the credits) open the curtains in the dining room to show her guests the spectacle of women in bamboo cages being auctioned off as sex slaves. mother gin slingShe was reduced to selling herself after her abandonment, and describes the brutal treatment she endured: “My soles cut open and pebbles sewn inside to keep me from running away . . .”

The Shanghai Gesture was a play in the 1920s, and even more louche than the film. You could get away with more in the theater, and audiences at the time were especially receptive to fantasies about Asian decadence. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian to play an Asian character onscreen, was a matinee idol well before Valentino. Best known today for his performance as the sadistic but honorable Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), he gained notice in the role of a Japanese ivory dealer who brands the white woman he lusts after on the shoulder in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915) — an act that seemed to enhance his appeal in much the same way that Valentino’s rape of the dancing girl would in Son of the Sheik (1926). “My crientele is women. They rike me to be strong and violent,” Hayakawa allegedly told a reporter.

An early Frank Capra film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), yen 2features an interracial romance between a white missionary played by Barbara Stanwyck and a Chinese warlord (Swedish heartthrob Nils Asther in yellowface). Stanwyck’s character is captured by the warlord and she has an erotic dream about him, imagining him as a brutal and passionate lover, although he turns out to be a gentleman and, in a departure from the novel upon which the film was based, their mutual attraction remains chaste. Miscegenation was taboo, even before the Hays Code, and General Yen was yanked eight days into its run, the sight of “a Chinaman attempting to romance with a pretty and supposedly decent young American white woman,” as Sam Shain put it in Variety, too shocking for audiences at the time. Nevertheless, the film was selected for the opening of Radio City Music Hall.

Of course, director Joseph von Sternberg was drawn to kinky material. “The pain that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,” in Baudelaire’s famous line, was always his subject.

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A Man for all Seasons

Who doesn’t love a martyr?

Here’s Thomas More in Paul Scofield’s powerfulHolbein portrait rendering, a brilliant, quiet man who weighs his words and never gives in to his base instincts. Sure, he gets the better of Henry VIII’s henchman, Thomas Cromwell, but it’s largely a matter of out-classing him, rather than descending to Cromwell’s level.

More: “You threaten like a dockside bully.

Cromwell: “How should I threaten?”

More: “Like a minister of state. With justice.”

Cromwell: “Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with.”

More: “Then I am not threatened.”

Well done, Mr. More! Or, should I say Lord Chancellor More? Or Saint Thomas More, as he became, finally, in 1935? Certainly there is much to admire in the humanist novel he wrote in 1516, Utopia, where he questioned the value of private property.

As long as there is property, and while money is the standard of all things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily; not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to the absolutely miserable.

More’s thinking would later be revived in a pamphlet published in 1834 by the abbé de Lamennais, Paroles d’un croyant [Words of a believer] which railed against the “conspiracy of kings and priests against the people,” earning Lamennais a stint in prison. But a number of utopian socialists took up the cause, and their works were read by Karl Marx. We all know where that led.

We also have this appealing comment from Utopia: “Anyone who campaigns for public office becomes disqualified for holding any office at all.”

But More had his fanatic side. He was Henry VIII’s henchman before Cromwell, and had no qualms about torturing heretics or burning them to death. He was seen as erratic and dictatorial, “using his powers as Lord Chancellor inquisitorially and in a style contrary to the Star Chamber’s accepted procedure.” He once described a Benedictine monk apprehended with books by the Protestant reformers Luther and Zwingli as “a dog returning to his vomit” — this to justify burning the man, who wished to repent.

The unsavory side of More is on full displaywolfhall in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but you won’t find Paul Scofield calling anyone a dog in A Man for All Seasons, let alone using words like vomit. He is far too erudite. Imprisoned in the Tower, he begs not for creature comforts—furs to ward off the chill, or food—but for more reading material, a request that the dastardly Cromwell denies him.

No doubt I’m viewing the man through the lens of the present, but methinks that martyrdom was all More had left, after he had so thoroughly debased himself for his sovereign.

It’s a pretty good movie, though. Watch the trailer of the newly released version.

Strangers on a Train

With thanks to Tim

I like this posteroff the beaten track from Hitchcock’s 1951 psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train, because it highlights the film’s zaniness. Robert Walker’s character (Bruno) is creepy, right from the beginning. You can’t imagine why Farley Granger’s character (Guy) agrees to dine alone with him in his compartment, even if the business of their feet touching beneath the table in the train’s bar suggests a homosexual attraction. Hitchcock chose the bisexual Granger for the part, knowing full well that audiences would make the association—which was even more explicit in the Patricia Highsmith novel—but Bruno is clearly a psychopath. And yet, you can’t help smiling in the scenes where Bruno appears. Like Guy, you’re drawn in, just as Hitch intended.

As a director, he left nothing to chance. Throughout the picture, we’re meant to focus on Guy’s cigarette lighter. An expensive gift from his mistress (Anne), it features a pair ofMcGuffin Lighter tennis rackets and an engraving: A to G. Bruno borrowed it and we just know he’s going to use it to implicate Guy in the murder of his unsympathetic wife (who was killed by Bruno). In a tense scene, Bruno drops the lighter down a storm sewer and we see his hand, coming through the grate, fishing around among the debris, a wet leaf, a chewing gum wrapper, a bit of orange peel and a scrap of paper, each item carefully selected by Hitchcock.

He cared more about the visuals than anything, and in thinking about the look of this picture, he was inspired by the cartoons of Charles Addams. This one, for example (is that Uncle Fester, enjoying himself there in the second row?)

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Hitch has a scene at a tennis match that clearly references Addams’ cartoon, with Bruno in the center, his attention fixed on Guy while everyone else’s heads are going back and forth, following the ball. Offbeat humor.

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Another nice touch, at a cocktail party, involves a society matron (Mrs. Cunningham) who is encouraged by Bruno to imagine how she might knock off her husband. She really gets into the game, coming up with an amusing little scenario where she drives off with her husband, knocks him over the head with a hammer, pours gasoline over him and sets the whole thing ablaze. We’re going along with it too, until Bruno puts his hands around Mrs. Cunningham’s throat and suddenly things get serious.

Raymond Chandler was brought in to write the screenplay for Strangers on a Train, but had a falling out with the director and was removed from the project, his contributions deleted. He considered Hitchcock a philistine for not recognizing “that what is said and how it is said is more important than shooting it upside down through a glass of champagne.”

Sorry, but I’m with Hitch on this one.

High Noon

It’s not news that High Noon (1952)high-noon-1
was really about Hollywood’s cowardice during the McCarthy era. John Wayne knew it. He turned down the Gary Cooper role when it was offered to him. The movie was “un-American,” he said in a Playboy interview, bragging about having helped run its screenwriter, Carl Foreman, out of the country.

All of this can be found in an old book by Anthony Holden, Behind the Oscar: Secret History of the Academy Awards (1992) and in Glenn Frankel’s new one, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. You can learn a lot from the Wikipedia entry on the film, too, including the fact that, blacklist parable or not, High Noon was a favorite of presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton.

Gary Cooper’s principled marshal may have originated as a stand-in for the blacklisted Carl Foreman.”There are scenes in the film that are taken from life. The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers,” the screenwriter said. “And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and comes back with his gun and asks, ‘Where are the others?’ And Cooper says, ‘There are no others.’ I became the Cooper character.”

But High Noon has been co-opted by the Right. A recent article in the Conservative Tribune explicitly invoked the film in regard to Trump’s confrontational stance toward Iran. “If Iran wants a showdown with Trump at high noon, he is willing to give them one, and they aren’t going to be too happy once they see what type of six-shooter he’s packing.”

I think Iran is kidding itself if they don’t think there’s a new president in town, Spicer said, sounding just like a classic line from an old Western.

This wouldn’t have surprised James Baldwin. He had a thing about Gary Cooper, going back to his boyhood days watching Westerns. In a clip from a 1965 Cambridge University debate included in the marvelous documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin said, “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.”

Cooper was a foil for him, a symbol devilfindsworkof white innocence (as was Doris Day, and Grace Kelly in High Noon). Interviewed by educator and civil rights activist Dr. Kenneth Clark in 1963, he spoke about the anger of young black college students (they were still called Negroes), who had reached the breaking point.

“You can only survive so many beatings, so much humiliation, so much despair, so many broken promises, before something gives,” Baldwin explained. “Those children had to pay a terrible price in discipline, in moral discipline—an interior effort of courage which the country cannot imagine, because it still thinks Gary Cooper, for example, was a man—I mean his image, I have nothing against him, you know, him. . .”

Baldwin may have had nothing personal against Cooper, but he could not stomach the heroic myths that Americans liked to tell about themselves in Westerns like this one.

To Kill A Mockingbird

I recently listened to Sissy Spacek’s narration of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was simply wonderful. We’d been assigned the novel in a ninth grade English class—not the ideal circumstances for encountering a work of literature. to_kill_mockingbird_1962_11_-_h_2016Laboriously, we dissected the book’s message, extracting solemn truths like that line of Atticus’s: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

The injustice of a white jury in Alabama convicting a black man, Tom Robinson, on false evidence for the crime of raping a white female was awful, but not surprising. I was more shocked when Bob Ewell attacked Jem and Scout. It was 1970 and George Wallace was running an ugly, racist campaign for governor of Alabama. Calling his opponent names, showing ads depicting a white girl surrounded by seven black boys alongside the slogan, “Wake Up Alabama!” He won the election in a landslide and entered the presidential race the day after his victory, gaining momentum in the primaries until an assassination attempt forced him to withdraw.

No, Tom Robinson’s conviction was expected, and I didn’t need to have all of Harper Lee’s foreshadowing pointed out to me by my English teacher. I knew what was coming.

“Atticus—” said Jem bleakly.

He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”

“How could they do it, how could they?”

“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep. Good night.”

I’m more inclined to weep now than I was at fourteen. Watching the film the other night, I was devastated when Robinson looks at Atticus as he is being led out of the courtroom, after the verdict has been read. I told you so, his look seems to say. It’s almost as if he blames Atticus for giving him grounds for hope. Nothing would change in Macomb County, Alabama. Only a fool would believe otherwise.

This confrontation is not in the book, by the way. Later, when Atticus learns that Robinson has been shot dead while attempting to escape from prison, Lee allows him a moment of insight, a fleeting acknowledgment that he, and white America, failed to provide justice for all. They were going to appeal the verdict; Atticus had faith that in the courts, all men are created equal.

“We had such a good chance,” he said. “I told him what I thought, but I couldn’t in truth say that we had more than a good chance. I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own.”

Brock Peters, the actor who portrayed Robinson, petersconveyed his hopelessness so powerfully. In a documentary on the making of the film, Fearful Symmetry (included with the 50th Anniversary Edition DVD),  Peters speaks of his own experience with racism:

“My life as an African American, or a black American, has had a lot of horror in terms of racism.” He pauses, hesitates before he uses the word, as if steeling himself to speak the truth. “I’ve been kicked, beaten. I’ve seen the worst of it. I guess I’ve been fortunate in being able to step back from the brink of an anger that would engulf me and cause my life to go in a really downward spiral.” Again he stops, choosing his words with care. “The anger, the frustration, the isolation that one could experience and often did experience was an easy place for me to get to, to tap, to use in my performance.”

I’m not sure that movie audiences in 1962 picked up on these emotions. Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times speaks of childhood joy and wonder and close family relationships in the picture (you wonder if he read the book) but only alludes to “the trial scene” and “good and evil” as major events or themes. Reviewers of Lee’s novel could be equally obtuse. The Atlantic called it “hammock reading” and reassured readers that, despite the main action (“a Negro accused of raping a white girl”), “none of it is painful, for Scout and Jem are happy children, brought up with angelic cleverness by their father and his old Negro housekeeper. Nothing fazes them much or long.”

I certainly see more now than I did as a ninth grader. Here we are, having traveled a long way since the era of Jim Crow and the early days of the Civil Rights Era, only to find ourselves back in Macomb County, Alabama.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

A charismatic outsider with no experience in government, a hero to his juvenile followers, arrives in Washington to fill a vacant seat in the Senate. He owes his appointment to some behind-the-scenes shenanigans by corrupt politicians in his home state. They think they can control him. Boy, were they mistaken.

smith-capitolImplausible? It’s hard to believe that Jimmy Stewart’s naïve character, Jefferson Smith, made it to adulthood, let alone to Washington. He doesn’t know how laws work, he doesn’t even know the rules of order that govern the Senate. Somehow this is endearing. His cynical secretary’s (Jean Arthur) faith in humanity is restored by Smith’s straightforward ignorance. She’s more than happy to educate him.

Smith doesn’t act like a grown-up. When unflattering articles appear about him following his first press conference, he punches out the reporters. It’s shocking, but you’re meant to cheer at this.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington paints the press as less interested in ferreting out the truth than in selling newspapers and pandering to the prurient interests of their audience. I guess they had it coming?

Jeff Smith is like a kid when he arrives in the nation’s capitol, wandering off to see the sights: statues and monuments to the founding fathers, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Awestruck, he stands in front of the copy of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives. We know he’s awestruck because patriotic music swells up beneath images of the Liberty Bell ringing, succeeded by a flaming torch as the words “life,” “liberty,” “pursuit of happiness” (penned as they were on the document) appear in front of his eyes.dwarfed-by-lincoln

He ends up at the Lincoln Memorial, listening as a little boy reads the words of the Gettysburg Address to his grandfather. Frank Capra apparently witnessed this very scene when he was making the movie. He’d been worrying that the time might not be right for this picture.

It was 1939. Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin to ensure that the Soviet leader would not object when he invaded Poland. “The cancerous tumor of war was growing in the body politic,” Capra wrote in his autobiography, “but our reform-happy hero wanted to call the world’s attention to the pimple of graft on its nose.”

The more seasoned senator from Smith’s state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), knows how politics works. “You can’t rely on people voting—half the time they don’t vote,” he tells Stewart early on. He’s quite ruthless, willing to lie to preserve his power and protect the interests of the fat cats back home. He wants Smith to grow up and face the facts: “This is a man’s world, Jeff, and you’ve got to check your ideals outside the door, just like you do your rubbers.”

Rains is by far the more interesting character, complex and increasingly tormented as he watches his protégé destroyed by the very machinations he set in motion. Smith is no match for the fat cats and their minions. In the famous filibuster scene at the end, when he pulls out the Constitution and reads the entire document, his Senate colleagues are unmoved. A good many of them are asleep.

But Rains has a moment of self-reckoning. He sees himself in Smith, his younger, purer self, and is ashamed at what he’s become. He confesses to having betrayed the country and his constituents, “the people who sent me here. . .  I’m not fit to hold office,” he shouts in the Senate chamber.

Talk about implausible.

Young Mr. Lincoln

My New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to get back to blogging regularly. So, here we go with John Ford’s hymn to the moral courage and human decency of the martyred American leader who steered our nation in the direction of justice.

Henry Fonda almost didn’t take the role when Ford lincoln-posteroffered it to him. He held Lincoln in such reverence, he said, that it would have been like “portraying Christ himself on film.” But Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) aims to show the great man before he was great, warts and all. (In fact, between the nose and the wart, it took three hours in make-up to get Fonda looking the part.) Honest Abe was not above cheating in the Fourth of July tug-of-war to help his team win. That self-deprecating humor of his may have disarmed dull-witted Midwesterners, but we in the audience recognize a skillful manipulator when we see one.

Abe was way smarter than the townspeople of Springfield, Illinois—smart enough to know that intelligence scares people. Better to hide your light under a bushel. But make no mistake about it: Abe’s light shines forth for all to see. Even as a young man, Lincoln was guided by his conscience, not by self-interest. When he rescues two brothers falsely-accused of murder from a lynch mob, it’s clear that he is dedicated to a higher purpose.

We seem to lose our heads in times like this. We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves!

Lynchings were all too common in the Jim Crow South. In the 1930s, when John Ford was making this picture, the trials of the “Scottsboro Boys” drew attention to the issue of racial bias in the American legal system. Nine black teenagers were accused in 1931, on flimsy evidence, of raping two white women. The case dragged on for seven years, going all the way up to the Supreme Court, and became known in left-wing circles as “the case of The White People of Alabama vs. The Rest of the World.”  Blues musician Lead Belly even wrote a song about the Scottsboro Boys.

lead-belly

There are clear parallels between the righteous Alabama Judge James Horton, whom newspapers at the time described as looking like “Lincoln without the beard,” and young Lincoln’s defense of the two brothers.

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Henry Fonda Looking Presidential

 Judge Horton sacrificed his own career to see justice done, setting aside the guilty verdict reached by the all-white jury and calling for a new trial after he became convinced that the chief witness to the alleged crime was lying. It didn’t help. Fonda’s Lincoln has no beard. While his own legal career is at stake, Abe succeeds in catching out the chief witness in the boys’ case in a “crude, cold-blooded lie.” Hollywood being Hollywood, the perpetrator admits to lying and justice prevails.

 

Shane

Like all the best mythical heroes, Shane has only one name, and it’s no coincidence that Jack Schaefer, the author of the novel Shane, studied Greek and Latin literature in college.Shane3 I’ve read that the movie is routinely used in classics courses, to make the lessons of great epics such as the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid accessible to undergraduates. Achilles, the hero archetype of Homeric legend, is isolated, set apart by his divine origins. Too perfect for the ordinary world.

“It turns out to be the same for Shane as for Achilles,” Carl A. Rubino tells his students at Hamilton College. “Just as the Greeks need Achilles, Shane’s potent presence and help are necessary if his newfound comrades are to survive the deadly violence represented by the ranchers, whose unbounded and increasingly obsolete way of life they threaten.” Shane too is a loner, unfit by his very nature to rejoin the society of the Wyoming homesteaders after he has killed. “A man is what he is, Bob (the name of the kid in the novel), and there’s no breaking the mold. I tried that and I’ve lost.”

Schaefer originally published Shane in 1946 as a three-part serial (originally titled “Rider from Nowhere”) in Argosy, a pulp magazine that specialized in tales of adventure: crime, science fiction, Westerns, and, in its early days, romance. Tarzan, Zorro, Fu Manchu and even Dr. Kildare first appeared in its pages.

1946. The year is significant. American GIs have returned from the war and are doing their best to reenter civilian life. The Good War is over, the Allies have won, and the world is once again safe for democracy. But demobilization has brought its own share of problems. The same postwar malaise that was revealed in noir films of the era has crept into the Western. Shane (1953) is not as dark as The Searchers (1956), but its moral message is more ambiguous than the pre-war Western’s. Jack Palance’s hired gun may be truly bad, but Shane is complicated, unknowable.

He cannot get beyond his violent past, the reflexes that make him jumpy, mistrustful. We wait for the final confrontation, when he can kill righteously, save the town. Then we watch him leave. Sure, he’s a legend, but his type is not suited to the day-to-day. Watch him ride off alone.

Shane, Shane. Don’t come back.

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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.

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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.”