Metaphysics of the Arabesque

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 444; 20 July 1958.

The Quiet American

When it appeared in 1955, the Englishman Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American was a big succès de scandale. With the recent guerrilla wars in Indochina as the backdrop, it tells us the story of a typical British journalist, Fowler, who colludes with the communists to plot the death of his rival in politics and love, his friend Pyle, the typical American. Pyle believes that neither the communists nor the French can find a solution to the Indochina problem. He supplies ammunitions to an army of dissidents that represents, for him, a life-sustaining “third force”. This fascist third force increases its horrible attacks, like the one where explosives are hidden in bicycle pumps. It’s because the lives of thousands of innocents are threatened, because Pyle, an always self-assured Bostonian confident of his ideals and convinced of the moral value of his acts, remains unconscious of his actions that Fowler agrees to his murder. The Americans made a hue and cry about this book, which violently expressed the eternal aversion the British have for them. Not without reason: Greene’s partiality crudely pitted the calm, sceptical and praiseworthy objectivity of the Englishman against the ridiculous, criminal and naïve self-assurance of the American. A puerile simplification that’s far from the truth: the particular stands for the general. And it’s obvious that all Americans aren’t like Pyle, nor all Englishmen like Fowler, that each civilization contains good and bad values in equal parts. Moreover, the style left a lot to be desired, with its false journalistic objectivity awkwardly inspired by the first Malraux.

Total change of tone in Mankiewicz’s film. The eighth quarter-hour makes us suppose that Pyle was a brave fellow and that Fowler, the intelligent and lucid Englishman, was taken for a ride by the communists, whose skilful manoeuvres had forced him to judge Pyle guilty. He was only too happy to condemn him: Pyle’s disappearance will allow him to win back the favours of his eternal mistress, whose hand Pyle had just asked. That’s the explanation of the third man, Vigot, the cunning French inspector. The most surprising part is that this interpretation corrects multiple plot holes and improbabilities of Green’s novel. And we’ll still never know the exact truth… Like for The Barefoot Contessa, we can quote Pirandello without being way off.

This dramatic turn of events, this unpredictable reversal is presented with a diabolical intelligence. No dramatic insistence whatsoever: a turn of dialogue just when our attention goes lax reveals the trick; the word “plastic”, based on whether it’s said with an s or without, whether it’s French or English, changes the face of the world. It’s appropriate here to insist particularly on the value of this reversal: some “modern” films and novels—it’s enough to name Orson Welles—go against the idea of the “message”, so dear to ambitious artists, and locate their meaning, just like the exceptional range of their aesthetic, on the destruction of a carefully elaborated message; truth lies way beyond moral stances. Critical towards Pyle and generous towards Fowler, the film finally inverts these values. Pyle’s self-assurance lay on a solid and honourable base. Fowler was just a coward, a victim led astray by the gullible idiocy of tortured, hung-up English intellectuals: the last shots make him a pitiable, ridiculous quiet Englishman. The film is the sum of these two points of view.

This explains the film’s surprising critical and commercial failure: Mankiewicz cheats his viewer, who thinks he’s watching a traditional display of anti-Americanism and gets a confirmation of his prejudices for two-thirds of the film, only to be taken for a ride at the end, just like Fowler. Mankiewicz has perhaps ended his career for having caught false intelligence, which seeks not the truth but to distance itself from tradition at all costs, and the famous fear of being fooled in their own trap. Some claim that the end was more or less imposed by the distributors; in truth, though, we have here one of the most independent films that America has ever sent us since it was even produced by our auteur-director and his company, whose name pays tribute to Beaumarchais.

Moreover, the aesthetic confirms the meaning of the work: it’s in the line of Giraudoux. Arabesques, an affectation and a literary style are its major features. The mise en scène takes pains to reproduce reality in all its forms for us: lightness and “fluidity” make way for dramatic composition and psychological study. The impression is that of liberty: things and beings seem to present themselves to us as though the auteur had nothing to do with them.

The film is more satisfying when objects occupy more space than characters. This can be explained by the literary, and not cinematic, character of the great Mankiewicz, who is only a good metteur en scène. This perfectly neutral Saigon as it presented itself during location shoot, with its suburban look cluttered with scrapyards and wastelands—while our detractors asked for local colour—is very curious. The festival scenes which open and close the film are among the most beautiful moments of contemporary cinema. This ballet with masques, confetti, garlands, monster heads and heroes scattered by the crowd represents in a typical fashion an 18th century universe, which is Mankiewicz’s own. It recalls The Rules of the Game and The Golden Coach without paling in comparison.

Over two hours, our protagonists talk in a room. Mankiewicz was thus hard put to find a novel way of directing actors. We have here a great progress over The Barefoot Contessa: to be sure, Audie Murphy, Michel Redgrave and Claude Dauphin seem to be acting in the same fashion, with their banal looks, creased foreheads and worried faces. But such performance corresponds more with the film’s subject than with the excellent and inventive direction of actors that we usually find in Mankiewicz’s work. In a ballet, individuality is subsumed in the whole.

Finally, one must point out the richness of the dialogue and their constant creativity. Mankiewicz is always on the lookout for the odd and the fantastic. He often plays on language conflicts and ambivalence of words. With him, cinema gives us not a filmmaker, but a genius litterateur. We are perhaps losing out on something there. But what are we complaining about? Even if the opposite is impossible, cinema can always contain within itself both cinema and literature. Even if the latter dominates, we don’t have the right become vociferous defenders of a cinematic specificity which, over the years, has proven to be highly fallacious.


[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]