The Unquiet Conflicts of The Quiet American
Films derived from well-crafted books nearly always walk a fine line of absolute fidelity to the original author weighed against the needs of cinematic storytelling. One of the most notorious examples of a creative collision in adaptation from page to screen is The Quiet American (1958), written, produced and directed by four-time Academy Award® winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz from Graham Greene’s provocative and evocative 1956 novel about American political activism vs. Communist anti-colonialism, filtered through an unblinkingly jaded British lens in the roiling French-governed Vietnam struggling to become its own independent nation in the 1950s. Mankiewicz sought to distill the book’s dense sociopolitical schematic that seemed to many pro-Communist and cast the American operative as a calculating interloper unduly meddling in the country’s affairs, and instead made the story more human and tragically romantic, triggering Greene’s repudiation (before shooting on location in Saigon and interiors at Cinecittà Studios in Rome was completed) that the filmmaker “distorted” his work with “the most extreme changes I have seen in any book of mine.” Kenneth L. Geist writes in Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz: “The film closely preserves the triangular conflict between the American (Audie Murphy) and a cynical, middle-aged English journalist, Fowler (Michael Redgrave), for the favor of Fowler’s compliant native mistress, Phuong (Giorgia Moll). Whereas Greene benignly reunites Fowler and Phuong after the Englishman has set up the [idealistic but innocent] American’s assassination [on a false report of supplying weapons to rebel forces], Mankiewicz makes Fowler the dupe of a Communist conspiracy to implicate the American and leaves Fowler rejected by Phuong and guilt-ridden over his perfidy. Both the novel and the film end with the same last line of Fowler’s: ‘I wish there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.’ The difference is that by removing Greene’s prefatory ‘Everything had gone right with me since he [the American] had died,’ Mankiewicz transforms the novel’s vague regret into the prospect of a chillingly moribund future for Fowler, a man isolated by his guilt and unwilling to seek the consolation of the Church.” Mankiewicz would later say he was interested in dramatizing how “emotions can very often dictate political beliefs.” Emotions – and edginess – were sometimes testy between his two lead actors. Murphy, then a decade into his checkered acting career that had largely been in Westerns or war sagas (most notably John Huston’s problem-plagued filmization of The Red Badge of Courage (1951) and To Hell and Back (1955), playing himself in a screen adaptation of his World War II soldiering autobiography), worked diligently to achieve the right balance of naiveté and idealism called for in the script, and indeed in later-in-life interviews considered his work here one of his better screen efforts. But he was often, Geist reports, “intimidated by Redgrave’s vast acting experience and polished technique.” Redgrave, writing in his 1983 memoir In My Mind’s Eye: An Actor’s Autobiography, confessed in a March 1957 diary entry: “It seems to me I’ll never adjust to the problem of acting with someone like Murphy, a ‘natural’ with a mass of experience but no technique. Joe seems unaware of the problem: perhaps for him it isn’t a problem. I feel like telling him it’s one thing to get a performance out of an amateur, another thing to give a performance with one.” Perhaps Mankiewicz responded to and was energized by the clash of personalities, as Fowler is ultimately revealed as a self-deluding character who for all his survival “technique,” to appropriate the indelibly effective Redgrave’s term, is reduced to end in isolation and despair. (And lovers of Mourning Becomes Electra, The Browning Version and The Go-Between will confirm that in these emotional waters Redgrave is both fearless and peerless.) Once in a while, the conflicting visions of author and filmmaker and differing actors, while making for production challenges, can result in moving and meaningful cinema that lingers longer in memory. This dispatch from “Greeneland” certainly does for FMVMagazine.com blogger Leon Nicholson, whose piece can be read here: http://www.fmvmagazine.com/?p=12741. Shimmeringly shot by Robert Krasker, winner of a Best Cinematography/Black-and-White Oscar® for the Greene-penned The Third Man (1949), co-starring Claude Dauphin and Bruce Cabot, and featuring a throbbing score by the venerable Mario Nascimbene on an Isolated Music Track, The Quiet American (1958) speaks volume in a crisp, recently remastered transfer coming June 13 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.