The Quiet American (Mankiewicz, 1958)

While I still favor the Philip Noyce version released a few years ago, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American breathes a classic and feverish quality into the material. Starring Audie Murphy as the nameless American, Michael Redgrave as the English journalist Fowler and shot almost entirely on location in Vietnam, this original filmed version of Graham Greene’s novel envisions a more patriotic and heroic portrayal of the western colonial influence. This doesn’t make for the same nasty bite of the Michael Caine film, but it does dissect the notion of American iconography as a saving grace. In Mankiewicz’s film, it almost becomes a moot point that the American truly loves the Vietnamese local Phuong and Fowler sees her as property. What becomes more enlightening is the behind the scenes manipulation of Fowler, and since the film is shot entirely in his POV, the audience as well. As Fowler walks down the crowded streets cutting through the humid air, he’s a man obsessed with belonging to the “other”, no matter what the consequences of this association. When he sees the American snuggle up to Phuong for the first time, Redgrave’s sturdy voice-over fills the space, a jealous but cavalier tone revealing much more character than intended. But the simplicity surrounding Murphy’s American, everything from his dog named Duke (John Wayne anyone?) and his heroic stature, make for a less interesting political thriller and a more romantic vision of young western ideology. Murphy has no menace, nor is he meant to have any. But Brendan Fraiser’s American in the 2002 version is a striking, dangerous, more modern maybe, politicized vision of American foreign policy. Mankiewicz’s film is neither dangerous, nor striking and doesn’t pack the punch of Noyce’s film, but it does contain some great classical Hollywood film traits – a wonderful script, impressive acting, and some inventive blocking.

Sleuth (Mankiewicz, 1972)

A lot of smoke and mirrors, Sleuth concerns itself completely with a cat and mouse game played by two Englishmen regarding the affection of an unseen woman. Andrew Wyke, the snooty rich husband (played with debonaire ease by Lawrence Olivier) psychologically combats his wife’s young lover Milo Tindle (the shrmarmy charm of Michael Caine fits nicely) resulting in a humiliating and life-altering set of circumstances. After Andrew initiates a meeting of peace at his large estate in the countryside, Milo soon realizes he’s in for more than just a quick chat. Quite obviously based on the theatrical source material (written by Anthony Shaffer), Sleuth is basically all dialogue, not that the constant witty and mysterious banter isn’t entertaining. Mankiewicz tries hard to show the cinematic side of the story, mainly in the form of some brilliant zooms both in and out of rooms and hallways. But the film gets tiring as one twist leads into another, each character turning the tables on the other quite consistently and in surprisingly predictable ways. The under-riding themes of racism and class eventually become overwhelmed by the presence of the two great actors, killing any subtlety along the way. Sleuth isn’t a great film, but it’s a good example of what used to pass for adult entertainment in Hollywood, a far cry from the visual effects bonanza seen in the last two decades. For that, it’s a must see.