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The Quiet American


By Ian Grey | Posted

Like its star, Michael Caine, the most impressive thing about director Phillip Noyce's The Quiet American is how it seems to be doing so little while accomplishing so much. It's a smart, noir-sexy adaptation of Graham Greene's tale of American adventurism wrapped in a May-December love story peaked by a hideously realistic U.S.-abetted terrorist attack on Saigon that can't help but evoke a sense of the same in Baghdad soon. This, despite the film being mostly completed prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

Caine plays Fowler, a British journalist going to semi-debauched seed in the morally miasmic political interzone of early-1950s Saigon. His one engagement with life comes courtesy Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a young Vietnamese woman he saved from prostitution and with whom he's deeply in love. But everything changes with the appearance of the titular Yank do-gooder, Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who claims to be supplying medical relief to the hapless natives.

Fowler rather fancies Pyle, in a fascinating-fungus-in-a-Petri-dish way, but also smells a rat when the handsome lad tries to steal his girl and then turns out to be a U.S. intelligence consultant. Pyle's threat to Fowler's love life reawakens his sense of decency, which, with Greene, inevitably leads to unsolvable moral conundrums and the seeds of war.

One really can't say enough about Caine's performance, but I'll try. With one glance, he's able to imply at least nine things Fowler is thinking. A breakdown-and-recovery in an embassy bathroom is performed with near-mathematical precision but with none of the show-off mechanics of a midperiod Streep performance. That Fraser holds his own with Caine and evokes an alternately boyish/creepy foil to him is, to say the least, really something.

The third star here is Wong Kar-wai regular Christopher Doyle's melancholically scrumptious Asian Gothic cinematography. Night in post-French-occupation Vietnam becomes a chiaroscuro of rich reds and menacing shifting blues; day is so bright that it purposefully verges on nerve-wracking overexposure. Combined with Noyce's unfussy compositions and the performers' muted brilliance, The Quiet American conveys the faintly amused static state of weariness particular to Greene's work, and in the shattering attack finale, the open-iris shock of sudden, impersonal violence. It's by no means a perfect film--last-minute cuts are apparent, and a Spike Lee-like coda of overstatement provides an iffy close--but in the current context of history repeating, it's the only film out there that really matters.

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