Giorgia Moll in The Quiet American (1958)


(director/writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; screenwriter: from a book by Graham Greene; cinematographer: Robert Krasker; editor: William W. Hornbeck; cast: Audie Murphy (The American, Alden Pyle), Michael Redgrave (Thomas Fowler), Claude Dauphin (Inspector Vigot), Giorgia Moll (Phuong), Kerima (Phuong’s Sister), Bruce Cabot (Bill Granger), Richard Loo (Mr. Heng), Fred Sadoff (Dominguez), Georges Bréhat (French Colonel); Runtime: 120; United Artists/Figaro; 1958)

“The Quiet American is loosely adapted from Graham Greene’s penetrating 1956 book about the Indo-China War.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Quiet American is loosely adapted from Graham Greene’s penetrating 1956 book about the Indo-China War, where he blames America for foolishly interfering in a war it doesn’t know anything about. Something he was proved right in later historical events. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz switched Greene’s anti-American premise around and made it an anti-Communism theme, which was to the detriment of the film as it seemed to lose its potent messages. Mankiewicz turns it into a feeble murder mystery and an uninvolving romantic love triangle, which is told in flashback. What kept the film lively was Michael Redgrave as a middle-aged British war correspondent, Thomas Fowler, who is an embittered intellectual, not religious, or caring about either war or peace efforts, but only in keeping his mistress for his personal pleasure. The film was shot in magnificent shades of black and white, and it was filmed on location in Vietnam giving it a look of authenticity.

A quiet, enigmatic American, Alden Pyle (Murphy), arrived in Saigon in 1952, on a private economic mission to help provide aid to that region at war. He is a naive humanitarian, self-righteous, priggish, do-gooder, believing in his idea of a Third Force to be a neutral buffer between Communism and French colonialism forces. Vietnam had an emperor chosen by the French and they were fighting as partners with the French against the Communists in the north. Among the 22 million Vietnamese, there were 2 million who belonged to a new religion called Cao-Dai. Their religion was a mixture of Buddhism and Christianity; they had a pope; a Disneylike temple with pictures of the eye of God, snakes and dragons; and, they remained neutral in the fighting. There was a general who broke away from following them completely and committed terrorist acts, and he had an army of 25,000 at his disposal.

The film begins with the American Pyle found murdered in a ravine and his girlfriend Phuong waiting in front of Fowler’s apartment for him to show up. Phuong used to be Fowler’s girlfriend, and now seeks his help.

In flashback, the film tells the quiet American Pyle’s story through the eyes of the British reporter Fowler. The married Fowler is dining with his beautiful and much younger mistress, Phuong (Moll), who loves milk shakes and whose name means feelings. She formerly worked in the Rendez-vous Club as an escort to men, that is where Fowler met her. Like many of her countrymen, she does what she has to do to survive.

When Pyle comes into the restaurant, he meets the couple and they can’t shake him. He immediately falls in love with Phuong and tells Fowler he will fairly compete for her. The cynical Fowler is soon sent to cover the war in the north and Pyle who is always chaperoned by Phuong’s older sister (Kerima), escorts her around Saigon.

Pyle surprisingly visits Fowler in the front to deliver him a cablegram at the command post of the French colonel (Bréhat), who reads poetry as an escape from his bitter reality of fighting a losing 20th century war with 19th century methods. Fowler learns that he’s been promoted to be the foreign editor and must report back to London. He fears that he will lose Phuong, so he writes his pious Episcopalian wife for a divorce. When he receives her reply of no for religious reasons, he tells Phuong and Pyle the reverse. But when Phuong, who can’t speak English, takes the letter to her sister for a translation and learns the truth she leaves him for Pyle–which breaks Fowler’s heart.

Two Communists, Dominguez and Heng, work to manipulate the self-pitying Fowler against Pyle. They suggest that the plastics he says he is using for toys, is really being used to make bombs. On a visit to a religious temple, both men have their cars tampered with and they are stuck on a road in which the Communists attack at night. Staying with the two frightened Vietnamese soldiers in a watchtower, they survive the attack by fleeing to the rice fields. Pyle heroically carries the injured Fowler to safety after the attack.

In Saigon, the tormented Fowler witnesses a terrorist bombing where a number of innocent people lose their lives, as Heng convinces him without substantial proof that Pyle’s bombs caused the blast. Heng then convinces him to betray Pyle, as someone who is selling munitions to the enemies of the communists.

Warning: spoiler to follow.

Inspector Vigot (Dauphin) determines that Fowler didn’t kill Pyle, but arrests Heng and his henchmen as belonging to a group of Communist assassins. The inspector accuses Fowler of being used by that group because he was weak, afraid of losing his girlfriend to Pyle and being left alone. The inspector tells him that he will have to live with that guilt. He will also have to live without his mistress, as she returns to work as an escort and refuses to see him.


REVIEWED ON 8/26/2001 GRADE: C +