Literally Speaking: The Quiet American (1958)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel is a love story with a political backdrop. Michael Redgrave plays the bitter and cynical reporter Thomas Fowler opposite Audie Murphy’s idealistic young American with the pair competing for the affections of beautiful Vietnamese girl Phuong, played less than convincingly by Giorgia Moll.

This love triangle is mixed in with the First Indochina War fought between the French and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh over Vietnamese independence. Apart from providing an interesting and unusual setting, it also anticipates American interference in the region which would lead ultimately to the Viet Nam War.

Despite all that though the film is at heart a love story, with our lead protagonists all doing what they do for love. The contrast between seasoned pro Michael Redgrave and Murphy, who stumbled into the profession after his World War II heroics got him noticed by Hollywood, mirrors their onscreen characters.

Few actors have been as convincingly world weary as Redgrave is here, there’s a hopeless desperation about Fowler, you get the feeling that his love or desire for Phuong is all that’s keeping his from a total breakdown. Yet given how things play out it’s hard to feel sympathy for him.

The boyishly handsome Murphy can’t really compete in the acting stakes but he doesn’t show himself up either. The American is a slightly ambiguous character; we’re never sure if he’s just the do-gooder aid worker he paints himself as or if he’s secretly working for the US Government. This must have made a pleasant change from the B western heroes Murphy usually played.

As the cause of the film’s strife, Giorgia Moll, is sadly found wanting. It’s not that we can’t believe that two men could be in love with her; she’s beautiful and has an innocence that’s alluring, no the problem is she isn’t, and doesn’t look, Vietnamese (she’s from Italy which is where the film was shot). As was the norm of the time we have a Western actor playing an Asian character, with John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha, made the same year, one of the few exceptions.

Giving the films best performance is Claude Dauphin as the cop investigating the American’s murder (the film is told in flashback with Murphy dead at the start). He’s got a real living-in kind of face, like he’s seen it all before and nothing surprises him anymore, and it suits the character, who’s one step ahead of Redgrave at the films downbeat finale.

The film may be adapted from a book but is has a stagey quality to it like a play, perhaps not surprising given how talky it is. Joseph L. Mankiewicz had a knack for turning plays into decent films, prior to The Quiet American he made Julius Caesar and he’d go on to make Suddenly, Last Summer, The Honey Pot and Sleuth. Here he uses that ability to keep the viewer hooked, even though the film features very little in the way of action, for the full two hour running time.

Recommended for those who like their love stories with an air of fatalism.

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