THE QUIET AMERICAN (1955) by Graham Greene

Greene_Thee-Quiet-American_bantamGraham Greene differentiated his thrillers like A Gun For Sale (1934) from more mainstream efforts by labelling them ‘entertainments’ though the line often blurred, as with Brighton Rock (1938). After the War he stopped making the distinction, benefitting his work as a whole as he was able to incorporate the dramatic tools used in his crime stories and screenplays to great effect in such major late works as The Honorary Consul (1973) and his prescient and still under-regarded political mystery, The Quiet American. I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; Rich Westwood’s celebration of 1955 at Past Offences; and Patti’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at Pattinase.

“He’s a good chap in his way. Serious. Not one of those nosy bastards down at the Continental. A quiet American.”

We begin with Thomas Fowler and his ex-girlfriend Phuong awaiting the arrival of Alden Pyle, to whom she is now engaged. But he will never arrive – he has been murdered and Inspector Vigot of the Sûreté is investigating. If the body were that of a mere local Vietnamese or even a Frenchman he would let it go as just another casualty of the war with the Communists, but this time there is real pressure to discover who killed the supposedly neutral American. The novel is set in Saigon during the early 1950s between Fowler and Phuong’s first meeting with Pyle in September and the latter’s death the following February. The story is told as a series of interlocking flashbacks  so that we eventually discover, when the timelines have converged, who Pyle really was, why he was killed, who betrayed who and the killer’s identity. Or do we? After all, this is a book that demonstrates ambivalence and ambiguity at every turn. It is typical in fact that we are not even sure of the author’s strategy in some respects – not generally considered one of the author’s Greene-Quiet-American-Penguinreligious books, there are virtually no pages in which a reference to the subject is missing as Fowler is so critical of those who believe. But this brings up the whole issue of just how reliable is the narrator? How reliable is his subject? Fowler is an embedded reporter, but everything he writes is censored before it even leaves the country – where is the truth, then, in a world turned upside down by the horrors of war? Along with its exploration of religious and ethical conundrums, Greene does not spare us the horror and bloodshed of war, including much reportage based on his own experiences that can be very hard to read. In fact, this turns out to be a pretty hardboiled look at conflict and people in general, with some surprisingly coarse language.

“Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wondering the world, meaning no harm.”

Greene_Thee-Quiet-American_vintageFor all its fine qualities, one of the great strengths of this book is the cinematic flair with which it is structured and developed (neither of the subsequent cinema adaptations  altered this). This helps Greene control the disparate themes and ideas percolating within to explore such themes as religious guilt, drug addiction, marital infidelity, sexual passion, the fall of European colonialism and America’s rise on the international stage through its propping up of foreign dictatorships in the name of anti-Communism. It was certainly highly topical then and it remains impressive that Greene go there so early – well ahead of America’s later direct involvement in the region, not to mention the descriptions of the ruin brought by the use of napalm, normally associated with the 1960s.

“Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand I would bamboozle myself into belief, but I am a reporter; God exists only for leader writers”

The story ostensibly belongs to naive, peachy-keen, slightly inscrutable Pyle, the eponymous American, though it is filtered entirely through the words of the middle-aged Fowler, a jaded British journalist covering the the tail end of the long war in what was then French Indochina. Pyle is ostensibly there to oversee the distribution of medical supplies as part of the American Economic Aid Mission, but we understand fairly early on that this is a CIA cover organisation and that Pyle is really there to prop up General Thé, who they have chosen as their puppet to lead a ‘Third force’ to supposedly banish the Communist threat. This ultimately leads to much death and suffering due to Pyle’s misreading of the local situation and his stubborn belief that what he is doing is good and right, no matter how many people get hurt in the process. Greene-Quiet-American-wbFowler likes the man, precisely for his youthful idealism, which contrasts so much with his middle-aged disengagement, leading inevitably to a competition over Phuong. The virginal Pyle falls madly in love with Fowler’s young girlfriend on first meeting, idealising her without actually understanding her at all. Fowler, a serial philanderer in his youth, thinks he has no illusions left and is not a very likeable man, for all his greater depth of feeling and maturity, selfishly more concerned with being left alone in his old age than Phuong’s wellbeing (it doesn’t help that his wife won’t grant him a divorce). The book is often criticised out of hand as being anti-American (as if this were criticism enough, and in any way different from the rampant and simple-minded anti-Communism of the fiction from that era) but this ignores the fact that the narrator is tortured by sexual jealousy and is portrayed in a much darker light than Pyle. What we have here is a very subtle and complex portrait of a tortured love triangle at a turning point in world affairs – and a great mystery too. But does this book count as a crime novel?

“What made you into a policeman, Vigot?” “There were a number of factors. The need to make a living, a curiosity about people and – yes, even that, a love of Gaboriau.”

In my view this is unquestionably a detective story. The entire framework is told within a traditional mystery structure with Vigot pursuing suspects and unearthing physical clues (including in fact that great old standby, a crucial animal footprint) – and it even has a MacGuffin in the shape of a mysterious powder – Dialacton – which proves central to the plot when the motive for Pyle’s murder is ultimately revealed. This makes for a great example of having your cake and eating it – a serious novel about politics exploring major themes like death and religion but also a proper detective story with a surprise finish. All in all this a powerful performance, driven by Greene’s uncharacteristic but masterly use of first person narration, which while confusing many readers into thinking that what Fowler says matches the author’s own opinion (some of the things he says about the Vietnamese will make most readers wince, I hope), also makes the twists and turns of the plot much more effective as all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place without shedding its core moral ambiguity. Greene-Quiet-American-cb The book has been adapted twice for the cinema. The 1958 version was originally announced as a vehicle for Montgomery Clift and Laurence Olivier, which would have been pretty extraordinary. However, that fell through and Audie Murphy was instead cast as Pyle (though actually the character is unnamed here, to make him a more universal ambassador of American values). Michael Redgrave is really good as Fowler and dominates the movie, which is outwardly faithful to the shape of the book though it simplifies the structure (it is just one big flashback in the middle topped and tailed by bookends set in the present). However, it is undeniably compromised by changes to the story that remove most of its ambiguity. The unnamed American is now a pretty untarnished hero and Fowler a Communist dupe. Even the appalling Granger, who was given a sad backstory in the novel, is made much more conventionally likeable. And then comes the flip-flop at the end, which mostly makes the film pretty confused as it makes a nonsense of some earlier scenes, though the new conclusion does admittedly work on its own terms. Trouble is, it is practically impossible not to be aware that it is a complete perversion of the author’s original intentions – but then, that had already happened with Hollywood bowdlerisations of The Ministry of Fear (directed by Fritz Lang) and The Power and the Glory (directed by John Ford in 19047 as The Fugitive), so no surprise there. It’s shame though, because with its location shooting in Saigon and strong leads (Claude Dauphin is sensational as Vigot) this could have really worked – admittedly, having Italian actress Giorgia Moll playing Phuong (interiors were filmed in Rome at Cinecittà studios) really doesn’t help either, but it was pretty common practice at the time to have Caucasian actors made up to look like Orientals. The-Quiet-American_poster2 An entire book has been written on the production, William Russo’s Audie Murphy in Vietnam (originally published as A Thinker’s Damn: Audie Murphy, Vietnam, and The Making of the Quiet American). It provides loads of fascinating details about the troubled production and is well worth reading, though the protracted section dealing with the adaptation from the book is completely partisan and unconvincing. Russo pretty much bends himself into a pretzel to justify Mankiewicz’s decisions on changing the ending of the book by trying to suggest that Greene was himself a communist dupe and a poor writer, which ironically shows the author to be as naive and witless as Pyle, ignoring Greene’s unimpeachable credentials as a serious novelist, journalist, film critic and as a major screenwriter (he just decides to ignore that Greene knew how movies were made and so had every reason to still be pissed off at the politically motivated changes made to his work – after all, Greene had more than proved his worth as a screenwriter with such originals as The Fallen Idol and The Third Man). Greene-Quiet-American-hbThe book was adapted again in 2001 (though held back and not released until 2002) with Michael Caine very well cast as an older version of Fowler (he’s a good 15 years older than the character in the book). This is much more successful overall, much closer to Greene, retaining the Fowler POV and narration (and his drug use) and the original ending too; it also making Pyle a more nuanced and sinister character, with Brendan Fraser pretty good as a tougher, less naive Pyle, a smart if slightly uneasy change. Vietnamese actress Do Thi Hai Yen makes Phuong a much more believable character than Moll could, though sadly Rade Serbedzija is no match for Dauphin as Vigot. It looks a treat thanks to the work of the great Christ Doyle while there is a great score by Craig Armstrong. Like the earlier version, it starts in the present and Pyle’s death and flashes back until we arrive where we started. In an interesting touch, the film then stretches the story for a further 15 years or so in a coda so as to properly connect the dots with the American entry into the Vietnam war in the 1960s. DVD Availability: Both versions are easy to find on DVD in acceptable is not especially impressive versions. The 2002 version is also on Blu-ray, but this edition is apparently quite poor, like many releases from Miramax. The Quiet American (1958)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Art DirectionRino Mondellini
Music: Mario Nascimbene
Cast: Michael Redgrave, Audie Murphy, Claude Dauphin, Giorgia Moll, Bruce Cabot  The Quiet American (2002)
Director: Phillip Noyce
Producer: Staffan Ahrenberg, William Horberg
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton, Robert Schenkkan
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Art Direction: Roger Ford
Music: Craig Armstrong
Cast: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Rade Serbedzija, Holmes Osborne I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘man in the title’ category: 07-Vintage-Greene

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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38 Responses to THE QUIET AMERICAN (1955) by Graham Greene

  1. Sergio – Terrific review as ever. I do like the setting and context for this. A lot of people don’t know much about what used to be called French Indo-China. But it’s that history that ultimately led to the Vietnam War and so much since then. So Greene’s take on it is especially interesting on that score (to me, at any rate). And as to the film versions? I’m rarely disappointed in Michael Caine…

  2. Bev Hankins says:

    Terrific review, Sergio. I’ve just started Brighton Rock–so I’m just settling in and am not sure where I’m at with it yet. The only other Greene novel I’ve read is Travels with My Aunt (which I loved).

  3. realthog says:

    Excellent! What a spiffy essay. I get the impression that Greene is a bit overlooked these days, but every time I go back to him I find myself fully rewarded.

    • Thanks John – you may be right about Greene – he was so successful in his day of course. What’s a mazing is that practically all his novels and most of his short stories have been fined too – it is literally easier to count the ones that haven’t.

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    Nobody ever did it better than Graham Greene.

  5. Excellent review, Sergio! I have seen the 2001 film, but had somehow missed that it was first a novel—I’ll have to find that one as it sounds superb. You don’t see 5 of 5 fedora tips every day!

    • Thanks Chris – well, let’s face it, we don’t read classic books every week, do we? Well, we could, but we’d have to leave a lot of enjoyable genre stuff behind to do it 🙂

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent stuff – I love Greene’s so-called entertainments (most authors would sell their souls to write something as good as them) and this one is lurking on Mount TBR – I really must read it soon!

  7. Colin says:

    Very good analysis of the various incarnations of this story. The novel, which I read ages ago, is a fine work – literary, entertaining, and just a darned good piece of writing.
    On the films, despite the changes, I still prefer the 50s version. Redgrave is excellent, in one of his best Hollywood films and, in my opinion, Murphy is very good too and holds his own. I enjoyed the remake a lot less though – Caine does well, very well actually, but I never liked Fraser as a screen presence and he weakens the overall production for me.

    • Thanks for that Colin. While the casting of Olivier and Clift would have been amazing, i agree that Redgrave and Murphy really make for a good contrast and serve the story well. The perfect version (sic) would probably involve a fusion of the two with a more faithful script and the original cast, I agree. I like Fraser in goofy roles but agree, less convinced in more dramatic parts.

      • Colin says:

        I think much of how one reacts to the adaptations depends on how one feels about movies altering the books they’re based on. It’s not something which troubles me too much – different media and all that. For me, the ’58 film still works fine as a movie on its own terms, and the book still retains its integrity.

        • I don’t usually have a problem with changes (Hitchcock was, ahem, notorious for changing the books and plays he based practically all his films on). I do think though that the changes have been handled in a slightly cack-handed way because it does make some bits a bit incoherent – and more to point, robs the material of most of its ambiguity. On the other hand, the big showdown at the end works really well as drama (ignoring the whys and wherefores)

          • Colin says:

            Yes, swings and roundabouts to some extent in this case. I suppose I just try not to paint myself into a kind of ideological corner on such matters, where my enjoyment of a book or film is compromised by worrying about lack of faithfulness. I quite understand that many, maybe even most, people won’t take this position though.

          • More than anything of course, making it anti-Communist was the most obvious and banal thing they could have done, which I think hurts it, irrespective of the original book – if you look at Huston’s UNFORGIVEN from the following year, it’s not a to ally satisfactory movie either, but at least it makes the whole thing much less clear cut (racial and party politics playing in a different way in movies at the time of course)

          • Colin says:

            Sign o’ the times, I guess, but you’re right on that score.
            Mention of The Unforgiven, which I admire a lot, takes me back to Murphy. I recall you saying ages ago that you hoped to do something on Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and the various adaptations at some point. I do hope you get round to that as I’d like to know what you think of Murphy’s role in the Siegel version.

          • Yes, I still plan to do that fairly soon! (Have I said that before …) the main emphasis though will probably be on BREAKING POINT as it’s my favourite of the three

          • Colin says:

            And arguably the best version of the story.

  8. Santosh Iyer says:

    Though I have not read the book, I have seen the 2002 film.
    It is a brilliant and outstanding film with excellent direction, acting, photography and screenplay. A must-see film ! I agree with your rating of 5 fedora tips.
    The car bomb explosions are based on a real event. There is an interesting article on this at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf/QUIETAM.htm
    “I walk down the streets, and I don’t give a damn,
    The people, they stare and they ask who I am;
    And if by chance I should run over a cad,
    I can pay for the damage, if ever so bad.”
    The above lines quoted by Fowler and Pyle towards the end is from Dipsychus by Arthur Hugh Clough.
    I haven’t seen the 1958 film, but from your review it seems a perversity—–a ridiculous attempt to justify the American involvement.

  9. MarinaSofia says:

    I’ve read (and loved) the book, as indeed most of Graham Greene, but I haven’t seen either of those films. They sound very tempting, for different reasons.

  10. neer says:

    Sergio, I do not know how many times I have re-read the last haunting paragraph of this book and always I start getting teary-eyed. It remains one of my favourite novels of all-time. I haven’t seen the movie versions though. Thanks for a fine review as always.

  11. I’ve been a fan of Graham Greene for decades. He’s a brilliant writer. And, his short stories are terrific, too. Excellent review of THE QUIET AMERICAN. I want to drop everything and reread it!

  12. Sergio, I’m with George though I’d be reading this book for the first time. I haven’t read Greene much but I have been given to understand that he was one of the leading contemplative writers of fiction in the last century. THE QUIET AMERICAN bears testimony to that view. Thanks for a splendid review, Sergio.

  13. Pingback: ‘She murdered minds as well as bodies.’ #1955book round-up | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  14. heavenali says:

    I really must read more Graham Greene I enjoyed the couple I read. I saw the film of the Quiet American a few years ago.

  15. tracybham says:

    I haven’t read much by Greene and that is on my list to remedy. The only one I have right now is The Human Factor, which was recommended by Neer.

    I did see the 2002 movie of The Quiet American and liked it but would like to read the book and then watch one of the movies. Probably the 2002 movie again. Michael Caine is one of my favorite actors and Brendan Fraser is pretty good too.

    • The Human Factor is very interesting as a contrast with most of the spy novels inspired by the Philby affair as it on the whole much more sympathetic – Greene is one of my great favourites and I will be reviewing many more of his soon, including The Honorary Consul, which when filmed also starred Caine (and he was terrific in it too).

  16. Pingback: OUR GAME (1995) by John le Carré | Tipping My Fedora

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