Twilight Time presents this cross between a political science lecture and a soap opera.
The opening shots of The Quiet American are by far some of the most glorious moments of the entire film. Before plunging into the decidedly bleak story, the camera follows a public New Year’s parade in the city streets of Saigon. The celebration says so much about the land, the people, the life, and the beauty found within all of it, imparting its zest, vitality, honor, love, and deep appreciation for it onto those watching. It rejoices in the culture and what it stands for. But almost immediately the beauty fades, and the ugliness of the present-day reality shows itself as the film launches into the plight of a tumultuous Vietnam and the new way of life there. The Quiet American is rarely an easy film to watch not because of its content, but rather because its characters tend to be a bit of a mouthpiece on the politics of the day. Things get only slightly better when the mechanics of the overly-dramatic plot are front and center, chock full of story-driven conflict. No matter which area it’s in at any given moment, The Quiet American has a lot to say…or at least it feels that it does.
Based on the novel by Graham Greene, The Quiet American opens on British Diplomat Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave), stationed in 1950s Vietnam, who has fallen in love with Phuong (Giorgia Moll), a local city girl he would like to marry. When a young idealistic American named Alden Pyle (Audie Murphy) arrives to do work on behalf of an international aid organization, the two men instantly butt heads regarding communism and the American presence in Vietnam. Complicating matters is the fact that Alden has also fallen in love with Phuong.
Even by conventional drama standards, The Quiet American was especially dialogue-heavy for a production of its day. There are so many long wraps throughout the film, they threaten to outdo its central mystery. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz manages to inject something of a noirish feel to the proceedings, mainly thanks to the device of opening the film with a dead body and spending the majority of the time discovering how it became dead. The presence of Redgrave’s perfect narration, coupled with a double-crossing lie told by one of the main characters, furthers the noir feel. At the heart of The Quiet American’s drama, however, is a romantic triangle; an emotional tug-of-war with one man wanting Phuong’s heart, and the other simply wanting her. “You should never trust anyone when there’s a woman in the case,” Fowler states at one point. Scenes featuring both men battling each other in front of Phuong without her even fully understanding what’s happening contain an unmistakably misogynistic feel that hasn’t aged well by any means. Yet the character of Phuong seems to be able to rise above it until the film’s end, when the reveal of her true feelings prove to be the greatest underestimation of all.
If nothing else, no one can deny that The Quiet American is a movie that certainly takes risks. To begin with, the film’s interracial love triangle must have been considered bold and daring for the late ‘50s. There’s also a great championing of Vietnam as evidenced by the way the film shows it as a thriving landscape full of flavor and character. Shots of a cathedral and city square each showcase a vibrant land and the people within it, making those of us watching in present day mourn for the fate that was about to befall the country. A sequence featuring a large explosion in the middle of the city is a sobering moment, and a rare one, when both stories blend in an admittedly effective way. The American of the title proves to be not that quiet with regard to his questions and eagerness to immerse himself in the political activity surrounding him, making him more like “the eager American” as the story pauses to make statements regarding then-current social and political unrest. “I’m from a country that’s been in existence for less than two hundred years, in a very old world. That same fifty years ago, we were barely taken seriously as a nation, much less a great force for wisdom and decision,” the American proclaims. “But suddenly now, a watch tick of history later, the world waits angrily for us to provide the answers it hasn’t been able to find in fifty centuries.”
Despite some capable efforts, The Quiet American can’t help but feel a bit miscast. However, this is not entirely the actors’ faults. The main problem at hand is that one can only make politics sound poetic for so long. Redgrave isn’t suave enough for his role, and while Murphy is game, the young actor struggles to keep up with the weight of the material he’s been given to play. It’s a shame we never get to fully know the female lead since Moll is a warm glow every time attention is paid to her, symbolizing the beauty that still existed in the country regardless of the turmoil within it. Yet the film inevitably treats her almost as a commodity to the two men who are after her.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing The Quiet American, both then and now, is the fact that it just can’t shake the dryness which came with many literary adaptations of the day. Its been reported that the initial choices for the two roles were Laurence Olivier and Montgomery Clift. For whatever reason, their casting never came to be, and the film clearly suffers as a result. One can only speculate at all the gravitas and skill that the two formidable talents could have brought to this tale, elevating its depth and ability to get audiences emotionally invested. Instead, what we are left with is a capably acted, yet ultimately mediocre version of a novel which failed to please either its own author or those of us who watch it years later.
The Quiet American is now available on blu-ray from Twilight Time.