An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Quiet American (2002)
PUBLISHED: 08:20 03 February 2018
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
The Quiet American; dir: Phillip Noyce; starring: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Rade Serbedgia, Pham Thi Mai Hoa, Tzi Ma, Robert Stanton. Cert: 15, (2002)
If you needed proof that sometimes Hollywood doesn’t know a good thing when it sees it then consider the fact that The Quiet American, Graham Greene’s absorbing tale of war-torn Vietnam before the Americans got involved, sat on a studio shelf gathering dust for a year while executives figured out what to do with it.
When it finally emerged 12 months later it was greeted with rave reviews which rightly declared that Michael Caine had delivered the finest performance of his career as the jaded Times foreign correspondent and his co-star Brendan Fraser had cast off his cartoonish George of the Jungle persona and proved that he could really act.
This is a film which revels in an atmosphere of uncertainty. It’s a Graham Greene story about relationships and friendships in times of war but it’s also a spy thriller where you are never sure who to trust. Is everyone exactly who they seem?
Michael Caine plays cynical English reporter Tom Fowler. He’s a man of his era, a link between the colonial past and the present. He can see the world is changing but has no real taste for it. He’s too tired and disillusioned to be part of this new way of life.
Instead he keeps his editor at arms length and disappears into his realm of dark rooms, shady figures and illicit liaisons. But, even here not everything is all that it seems. Caine is having a relationship with young Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a dance hall girl, but the arrival of a bright, young American visitor Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) threatens to disrupt both his personal and professional life.
Narrated by Caine’s Fowler, we know that this is Saigon in 1952 and there is a war going on between the communist Vietnamese and the colonial French. With America gripped with Cold War paranoia about the communist threat, it doesn’t take them long to decide to take an interest this festering guerrilla war in what was then known as Indo-China.
American economist Pyle is America’s man on the spot and recruits Caine’s Fowler to get him into the rural areas so he can meet the local Vietnamese. However, their relationship is complicated by Pyle’s growing attraction to Phuong.
In the skilled hands of Australian director Phillip Noyce we get a film where the personal entanglements echo events and changes in the outside world. As for Phuong’s real feelings about either of the two men professing their love for her we don’t know – she, like her country for the time being, remains inscrutable – an exotic looking beauty which meekly accepts others wishes and desires for her.
Caine is simply brilliant in this film. His performance as Fowler is nuanced and understated but utterly compelling and is easily as good – probably better – than any of his breakthrough roles in the 1960s and 70s. He is totally believable as this relic of a bygone age, searching for love with a woman 30 years his junior, and watching the world explode around him, anesthetised by the contents of a whiskey glass.
But, he is not really over the hill. He likes Pyle and he finds it to remain a passive observer. He is a man with a life-time of contacts and a thorough knowledge of the local landscape both geographic and political. He agrees to help Pyle make contact with the rebels without realising that his American friend may have a secret agenda all of his own.
With Caine on such good form, Brendan Fraser has deliver the performance of his career, just to ensure that he’s not blown completely off the screen and he finds a depth and duplicity in Pyle which brings a genuine sense of mystery and uncertainty to his role and to the film.
It’s also a really good looking film. Noyce not only captures the look and atmosphere of post-war Saigon but he photographs this world with a loving eye. His Saigon may have seen better, more prosperous times, but it still exudes a sense of faded glamour. It’s a perfect world for a grizzled old journalist like Tom Fowler to lose himself in. Somewhere to hide away from his editor and escape from the unsettling realities of the atomic age.
Sometimes adaptations of novels by literary greats like Graham Greene can be too reverential, too talky. The Quiet American strikes that perfect balance: it never forgets it’s a film and has to be cinematic but equally, it never betrays or sells short its powerful source material. A real gem.