Secret Agent Men

The Quiet American and the explosive Mr. Bond

Salvation, damnation, atonement, grace: These are the options available to the often faithless denizens of that territory known as Greeneland, a zone in which no good deed is unsalted by bad motives, and where evil acts may yet secure one a seat at God's right hand. Just as Graham Greene's characters usually manage to drag themselves (by the chin if necessary, and often contrary to everything they refuse to believe) over the threshold of the sanctuary into a state of real or partial—and usually highly compromised—redemption, so filmmakers are returning to Greene himself and trying to do right by him, the better to redeem the perceived sins of their cinematic forebears.

Greene was probably right to feel he had been hard done by on film. When he himself was behind the typewriter, things usually went smoothly and the results—Carol Reed's The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, Alberto Cavalcanti's anti-Mrs. Miniver home-front melodrama Went the Day Well?—are easily the most memorable films taken from his work. However, the list of inadequate, bad or even treacherous adaptations of his novels is a long and depressing one. Perhaps most famously there is the movie that really soured Greene's view of Hollywood: Joseph Mankiewicz's 1958 adaptation of his novel of the early years of the Vietnam conflict, The Quiet American, whose ending was re-jigged in such a way as to betray utterly Greene's ideas about the geopolitical morass of Southeast Asia.

Filmmakers today, knowing the hash their predecessors often made of Greene the first time out, approach his work clad in the penitent's sackcloth, the scourge ever at hand lest they feel tempted to mess with the Word. In remaking The End of the Affair a couple of years ago, Neil Jordan devoutly abased himself before Greene's shrine, yet wound up with exactly the same problems as Edward Dmytryk's 1955 version: Jordan's movie is, finally, a superior Cliffs Notes to a probably unfilmable novel. Now Phillip Noyce, returning to his left-wing political roots and a tight budget after a decade of expensive, right-wingish Tom Clancy adaptations, has attempted to make up for what Mankiewicz wrought.

Greene wrote the novel after spending four winters in Vietnam, between 1951 and 1954, as a correspondent for Life and London's Sunday Times. Famous for its local accuracy and political prescience, the novel became an essential component of 1960s journalists' education in the roots of the Vietnam conflict. Its central character, an aging, cynical English journalist named Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), becomes friendly with the uncharacteristically quiet American Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a well-scrubbed innocent supposedly in the employ of the American Legation but actually a CIA operative. Then Pyle lays eyes on Fowler's Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (beautiful newcomer Do Thi Hai Yen), and soon announces, quite baldly, that he intends to remove her from the care of her unworthy protector and steer her toward a richer, freer life as the future Mrs. Pyle in some small New England town where "even the celery comes wrapped in cellophane."

Fowler, in fact, is a kind of enhanced stand-in for the famously disreputable and libidinous Greene: he drinks, smokes opium daily, keeps a pliable mistress and knows the names of all the French porno mags. Pyle, though Greene always denied it, is derived from the famous OSS/CIA operative Colonel Edward Lansdale, who, like Pyle, was responsible for backing a violent "third force," neither colonialist nor communist, in the emerging conflict. When we first encounter Pyle, he's dead of stab wounds, and the movie, like the novel, circles back to the first encounter between the two men. It witnesses the decline of their unlikely friendship into a sexual rivalry for the passive ("Sometimes she seemed invisible like peace") but pragmatic Phuong, which mirrors the three-way struggle for the soul of the country. When Fowler finally accepts a measure of political involvement and betrays Pyle to the communists—outwardly, at least, in disgust at the bloodshed Pyle has caused in his role as a terrorist for Democracy—his motives are powerfully adulterated by sexual jealousy.

It's an archetypal Greene construction—the rack on which he breaks his luckless creations, a delicate cat's cradle of interlocking hostilities and mixed motives, filled with mirror images and polar opposites. Fowler is a man detached, a nonbeliever, Pyle a Christian, a committed innocent, a virgin at 32—"an unmistakably young and unused face flung at us," writes Greene, "like a dart." Caine is about 15 years too old to play Fowler, but his weary, disdainful performance (loosely modeled, says the actor, on Greene himself) amply anchors the movie. Fraser's Pyle is less successful, though this has much to do with Greene's flawed and stereotypical characterization (for Greene's generation of Englishmen, whether on the left or the right, the adjective "American" was less spoken than expectorated). Looking oddly like his frozen-in-time character in Blast From the Past, Fraser—in his boxy, best-and-brightest suit; his sleeves-up; and with his can-do, Walt Rostow fanaticism and, especially, his buzzcut and spectacles—seems to be modeled after '60s U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

Fraser makes a brave attempt at a character weighed down by political/symbolic freight and by Greene's evident distaste for American culture and influence, but finally, he is a Canadian in a role that absolutely demands an American. For all his limitations as an actor, Audie Murphy, Mankiewicz's Pyle, brought with him an immensely evocative set of associations—he was a war hero, then a star of Westerns—and his earnest face was a tabula rasa on which anything could be read.

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