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.

The Lady Vanishes

God bless the English! They may be insular, bringing their prejudices with them when traveling in foreign lands. They may be rigid when it comes to the venerable ritual of tea. They may be batty, like the dear old governess Miss Froy, last seen in the train compartment she shares with the heroine (before she vanishes), applying herself diligently to “a most intriguing acrostic in The Needlewoman.”

But, by George, you can count on them in a pinch! Balkan villains are no match for the sharp-witted young couple played by Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. As for slippery Italian escape artists and haughty Middle-European aristocrats, not to worry. When times get tough, even the cricket-obsessed pair, Charters and Caldicott, prove themselves handy with a pistol.

“The Lady Vanishes” is a film to watch when you’re snowed in, or recovering from the flu. Settle down with a nice cup of tea and enjoy the leisurely pace of Hitchcock’s picture —the very last he would make in England. It’s almost as if he knew that the world he was depicting on the very eve of World War II would vanish, like dear Miss Froy. This would be his last chance to celebrate it, and perhaps also to prod his countrymen out of their complacency.

England and all she stood for was threatened. Danger lurked behind the most innocuous facades; nothing was as innocent as it seemed. She would soon demand sacrifices of her citizens, but like Charters and Caldicott, they would rise to the challenge.

Rule, Britannia!