The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Quiet American

For the United States, the Vietnam War officially began in 1965 as American forces officially became involved in the fighting in Vietnam. Of course, American advisors had been on the ground in Vietnam for a decade-plus trying to help swing things toward the American way and away from the Communist way. A particularly nasty period leading to a far nastier period, it's shady and dark and very hush-hush, very Cold War. Not too many films address the pre-Vietnam War time. An exception? From 1958, The Quiet American.

It's 1952 in Saigon and the political situation in Vietnam is on the verge of exploding as Vietnamese insurgents have begun to fight back against their French colonist rulers. Everything is seemingly in the balance just waiting for someone to strike the match that sets it all off. Living in the city is Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave), a middle-aged British journalist working as a war correspondent on the almost-daily updates of the fighting. He lives with a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong (Giorgia Moll), and is quite comfortable in his living situation in spite of the fighting and death around him. His peaceful arrangement changes though when a young American (Audie Murphy) shows up in Saigon. Working with a friends of Asia organization, the American takes an immediate liking to Phuong, putting the young woman in quite a spot. Now, Fowler -- with a wife back home -- must decide what is most important to him.

This 1958 historical drama from director Joseph Mankiewicz is based on a novel by author Graham Greene. As for the finished product, Greene was less than pleased with some rather major changes made from his source novel. Mankiewicz too was displeased with what the studio had done to the version he had written and then directed. I haven't read the novel, but I have seen the 2002 version of the film (starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser) that's supposedly a lot more in line with Greene's original. Moral of the story? Issues those involved may have had, 'Quiet' is worth a watch for any number of reasons, flaws considered and flaws aside.

My feeble mind can only grasp so much Politic. That's right...the upper-cased Politic. That was my worry about this 1958 drama. Though it is a personal story among three people in Saigon, the political situation in the city (and the world on a bigger level) is the basis. I wasn't always sure what they're talking about, but it's fascinating to watch it develop. Basically, everyone has their motives, the French, Communists, Americans and those that would benefit from a third force taking an active role in Vietnam, in this case those dastardly Americans. Mankiewicz filmed in Vietnam in 1958 -- so not the most peaceful filming location -- which gives 'Quiet' an authentic air of actually being a part of what we're seeing on-screen. Filming was less than smooth sounds like as demonstrations and violence rocked the city. How about that for adding that layer of reality?

The basis of the story is one of my least favorite storytelling devices....well, ever. It's the love triangle among Redgrave's middle-aged journalist, Murphy's noble, naive, idealistic American, and Moll's innocent Phuong who simply wants to be happy. The historical backdrop certainly helps alleviate the pain, but mostly, it's the acting talent involved. Mankiewicz's script lets these potential cardboard cutouts be red-blooded individuals (mostly). Redgrave is excellent as Fowler, the journalist going through a mid-life crisis of sorts at the worst possible moment. It's a challenging character because he isn't sympathetic, is a bit too whiny but all under the umbrella of being a stodgy British gentleman. He's passive aggressive and with a touch of condescending for good measure. By far, that's the best performance.

Murphy wasn't the first choice to play the titular, unnamed character, just part of a checkered production that saw some huge names drop in and out of filming. Murphy takes a rap sometimes for his wooden acting, but I thought he was excellent here. The biggest change made from Greene's novel is in the character, Murphy's American presented as a heroic, naive, honest, genuinely good individual while his backstory and motive for being in Vietnam are never truly explained. The 2002 version did not have that problem. Redgrave and Murphy play well off each other, Moll keeping up throughout with a thankless part. Also look for Claude Dauphin as a scene-stealing police investigator, Bruce Cabot, Fred Sadoff, Kerima and Richard Loo in key supporting parts.

There are issues with the story's pacing and as I mentioned, I get lost at times in the politically-heavy scenes. But as a movie? It's very good. I liked the movie-watching experience a lot. Filmed in black and white, 'Quiet' looks great, humid and sweaty and sun-drenched, a perfect backdrop for that politically and love-charged Saigon. The storytelling techniques work well -- giving away the ending in the opening scene, the rest told in flashback -- and the acting is solid all-around. A lot to recommend for an oft-forgotten drama.

The Quiet American (1958): ***/****

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