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In 1952 Saigon, Vietnam during Chinese New Year celebrations, the body of a young American is found on a river bank. Anxious when the American misses a scheduled meeting, British reporter Thomas Fowler leaves his apartment to look for him, but is summoned to police headquarters by French Inspector Vigot, who is investigating the murder. Vigot inquires about Fowler's meeting and asks if he can verify that Fowler's former girl friend, the beautiful Phuong, and the American are engaged. Fowler is unwilling to discuss Phuong, but admits knowing that the American is a member of Friends of Free Asia, an organization that distributes aid in the form of medicine and food. When Fowler asks if the American is dead, Vigot asks Fowler to identify the body. After confirming that the dead man is the American, Fowler remains in the morgue and recalls one of his first meetings with the American a few months earlier: Over drinks with Phuong, Fowler's local informant Dominguez and the American Fowler cynically dismisses the seriousness of the war being fought in the north between French colonial forces and the Communists, and the American's observation that the Vietnamese should rule themselves. Dominguez, who has just returned from the north, advises Fowler to visit the region. The American invites Fowler and Phuong to the Rendez-Vous restaurant, where the American is distressed by the hired female escorts, choosing instead to dance with Phoung. Fowler is joined by Phuong's sister, Miss Hei, who inquires about the American's financial background. A week later Fowler travels to the north and is surprised when he meets the American, who has been picked up by the military for roaming in the region. The American admits that he braved Communist lines to confess to Fowler that he has fallen in love with Phuong. Fowler scoffs at the American's determination to marry Phuong, but admits that he could never marry her himself because he is already married and his wife's religion forbids divorce. After the American departs, Fowler receives a telegram informing him that he has been promoted to a London post as head foreign editor. Fowler spends the next two weeks covering the war in the north, but remains anxious about Phuong and the American. Upon returning to Saigon, Fowler learns from Dominguez that the American has been receiving shipments of plastics, in addition to the medical supplies for his mission. Fowler also discovers that the American has been with Phuong constantly, but always in the company of Miss Hei. Later, the American, accompanied by his Boxer dog Duke, visits Fowler and Phuong to inform Fowler of his sincerity regarding Phuong. Put off by the American's guilelessness, Fowler challenges him about the plastic shipments, but the American insists that he is helping make children's toys for Chinese New Year. The American asks Fowler for assistance in speaking with Phuong, as he speaks no French or Vietnamese and she does not understand English, and Fowler grudgingly translates the American's proposal of marriage to Phuong. After the American departs, Fowler writes a letter to his wife pleading for a divorce. Several days later, in the countryside, Fowler and other journalists watch the religious ceremony of the Cao-Dai sect and interview the sect's military commandant. The American is present and asks Fowler for a ride back to the city before nightfall when the Communist bombings begin. When Fowler's car runs out of gas at dusk, the two men are forced to seek sanctuary in a guardhouse with two Vietnamese sentries. There, Fowler and the American discuss politics, but the Englishman dismisses the American's hopes for another option for Vietnam other than deteriorating French colonialism or Communism. Near dawn, when the guardhouse is threatened by an approaching Communist army tank, Fowler and the American flee. After Fowler injures his ankle, the American hides with him in a rice paddy, then goes for help. A few days later, as Fowler is leaving the hospital for treatment of his broken ankle, he receives a response from his wife refusing his divorce request. When Phuong asks about the letter, Fowler tells her that his wife has agreed to the divorce and later repeats the lie to the American. Afterward, Dominguez visits Fowler to recommend that he speak with a Chinese acquaintance who has vital information. Fowler agrees and is taken to Mr. Heng, who admits to being a Communist, but nevertheless asserts his confidence that Fowler is neutral and a fair reporter. Heng then shows Fowler an American-labeled, empty can of plastic and cracked plastic moldings. The following day, the American confronts Fowler in a restaurant, revealing that Phuong took the letter from Fowler's wife to her sister for translation and discovered his deception. That afternoon, Heng meets Fowler in town to show him several bicycles carrying plastic tire pumps that match the moldings distributed by the American. Unsettled, Fowler returns to his apartment and, finding no sign of Phuong, realizes she has left him for the American. Soon after, several bicycles explode in the city square, seriously injuring many people. Fowler comes upon the American dispensing medical aid and, believing the American has provided the explosive-bearing plastic pumps to forces supporting an independent Vietnam, berates him. When Fowler rages about the American's naïve political actions to Heng, Heng offers to get rid of him and suggests that Fowler set up a late dinner date with the American that night. That afternoon at Fowler's request, the American and his dog visit and Fowler accuses him of political meddling. The American denies the accusation, explaining a prominent Vietnamese he met at Princeton University spurred his interest in Vietnam. The American reveals that he has been recalled to America and is taking Phuong with him, then agrees to meet Fowler for a late dinner. In the present, Fowler leaves the morgue to tell Phuong that the American is dead. The next day Vigot takes Fowler to the American's apartment and reveals that he knows that Fowler lied about last seeing the American in the square after the bomb blasts. He explains that Duke was found dead near the American's body and that cement on his paws matched fresh cement poured at Fowler's building on the afternoon of the murder. When Fowler attempts to explain the American's misguided activities, Vigot states that Fowler's jealousy of the American has been manipulated by the Communists to help get rid of the American. Fowler is stunned when Vigot reveals that Heng is the chief of a Communist assassination committee and Dominguez is a long-time Communist stooge. Vigot then gives the reporter a telegram from Fowler's wife that was found on Dominguez. In the telegram, Fowler's wife agrees to the divorce, prompting Fowler to go in search of Phuong. To his dismay, he finds her working as an escort girl at the Rendez-Vous, and despite his declarations that he has turned down his new posting and will marry her, Phuong rejects him.