Seeds of pain
Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American a must-see film
Michael Caine gives one of the best performances of his long career in The Quiet American, and that’s just one of the several things that make Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of the Graham Greene novel a must-see film.
As a kind of historical drama, with Vietnam circa 1952 as the setting, Noyce’s film has another kind of urgency—in part because Greene’s story concerns the prelude to the U.S. military’s escalated involvement in that country’s violent turmoil. And coming out during the prelude to another U.S. war of “liberation,” this is a film that almost didn’t get released.
But, in addition to all that, Noyce’s Quiet American is an uncommonly well-made film. Its topicality and literary prestige are strong selling points, but Noyce and company deliver the goods in every other respect that matters as well. This is one of those rare films that create a whole lived-in world for themselves and us alike and build a fascinatingly intense atmosphere in which everything—story, character, plot, setting—is organically intertwined.
Caine plays Thomas Fowler, a British newspaper reporter stationed in Saigon, and Brendan Fraser plays the title character, an American official ostensibly involved in medical and humanitarian aid. The gradual increase in signs of Pyle’s involvement with the C.I.A. is a major story thread, but the political and historical aspects of the tale are all thoroughly entangled with the curiously deflected romantic triangle that emerges between Fowler, Pyle, and Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress Phoung (Do Thi Hai Yen).
While Pyle is the title character and the pivotal figure in the story, Fowler is the central force within the film’s multi-faceted vision. The Quiet American is a study of several kinds of deceit, private and public alike, and Fowler is both observer and participant in every respect that matters. The combination of Fowler’s voiceover narration and Christopher Doyle’s richly evocative cinematography creates an exceptionally deep perspective on public issues and personal dramas alike.
Caine’s Fowler is a remarkable creation—grave, ambivalent, sad, guilty, full of pained wisdom, glumly passionate, and at times eerily similar to Graham Greene himself. Fraser is neatly effective as Pyle, but the character’s two-dimensionality persists. And a good deal of the best acting in the film is done by the Vietnamese actors—especially Hai Yen’s smart, nuanced rendition of Phoung.