After his acclaimed performance as Doctor Larch in “The Cider House Rules,” Michael Caine trades an ether addiction for an opium pipe in “The Quiet American.” This film is the newest adaptation of the Graham Greene novel of the same name, the first being the 1958 film directed by Joseph Mankiewicz.
Caine plays Thomas Fowler, a London Times reporter in Saigon covering the 1952 Vietnamese war for independence. Droopy-eyed and grudgingly British, Fowler eats his breakfast at the Continental Hotel and writes up his reports unattached and altogether removed from the war. His only connection to Vietnam is his love for an indigenous woman, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). The plot is typical to Greene: A foreigner stationed in a faraway country becomes involved in impossible love and uncovers conspiracies right and left.
Fowler’s relationship with Phuong is threatened when a young American businessman, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), confesses to Fowler that he has fallen in love with Phuong. The men compete for the woman’s love, and Fowler, suspicious of the young man’s apparent innocence, begins a casual investigation that results in the revelation of a massive conspiracy.
“The Quiet American” upholds Greene’s prophetic voice — criticizing America’s inevitably disastrous involvement with Vietnam. The film is not anti-American, but it does emphasize America’s naivete — aptly personified in Pyle’s character — that caused the United States to become entangled with Vietnam in the first place.
But sometimes the film’s wartime setting seems to be an excuse to throw the three characters together and explore the love triangle between them. The relationship between Fowler and Pyle is an offbeat one. Caine’s performance is strong and he carries the film. Fraser, on the other hand, is stilted and cardboard-flat, like in all his films. Luckily for him, this time it fits his character, who is as square as his boxy, Gatsby-esque suits.
Though the film builds around the love triangle, its greatest weakness is one of the triangle’s vertices — the love interest herself, Phuong. Her character is flat, her lines often cliched, and aside from her tremendous beauty, it is difficult to see why these men love her. Though Phuong possibly stands as a symbol for Vietnam, torn between the British and the Americans, director Phillip Noyce (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”), treats this metaphor with such phoniness that both she and the men end up looking ridiculous.
As the men compete over Phuong’s love, tension builds quickly and erupts as spontaneously as the exploding grenades that pepper the film’s mise-en-scene. They sporadically lash out at each other, and then the tension quickly falls back under the film’s surface, from whence it came. Quips between the men are well-penned and sharp — appropriately complementing the film’s crisp, visual aesthetic. Details, down to the very flowers in Phuong’s hair, are immaculately accounted for, and the set seems to come straight out of a J. Peterman catalogue.
The film’s perspective is shown through foreign eyes. Noyce beautifies wartime Saigon. The film seems to be shot through a yellow filter — the nighttime streets glow and light flickers romantically from hanging lanterns. Poverty, ugliness, and reality in general is noticeably absent from the film. It is as stylized and slick as the book from which the story originates.
Despite this element of inauthenticity, several of the beautiful scenes make the film memorable. In one suspenseful instance, Fowler and Pyle — held at gunpoint by two Vietnamese watch guards — hide in a tower and share their reasons for loving Phuong. After quietly describing Phuong’s habits, Fowler utters, “If I were to lose her, it would be the beginning of death.” The film is at its best when it portrays these moments of sincerity. These moments are rare, though, and for the most part, Noyce goes overboard with melodrama, unloading cheesy flashback sequences, symbolic imagery and overwhelming his audience with a surging musical score. But don’t be mistaken — “The Quiet American” is no chick flick. The graphic violence vehemently categorizes it as a war film.
Caine’s meaty performance saves “The Quiet American.” And in terms of timing, the film’s release date is fitting. As America braces itself for another distant war, Noyce drudges up the issues Greene broached in his prophetic novel. Here and now, the film, despite its flaws, seems oddly appropriate.