Perhaps we require roles like Thomas Fowler’s to be played by veteran actors; we have to be able to read the murky past all over his face. He is an aging journalist stationed in ’50s Vietnam during the First Indochina War. He has been around too long and is too weary to have any ideals left; they’ve been replaced by cynicism and uncertainty. He understands the problems in Vietnam, but he doesn’t pretend to have a solution; he probably knows the counter-argument to everything one could put forward. He is married to a woman in England who will not give him a divorce; he is in love with a twenty-year-old Vietnamese girl. If he keeps pursuing stories in Vietnam, his paper won’t recall him to London, and he’ll be able to stay with her.
In Phillip Noyce’s 2002 adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, Fowler is played by Michael Caine. It is, for my money, one of his best performances. Although Caine made his name with loud-mouthed, laddish characters, his roles and performances grew more subtle over the decades. I am referring here, incidentally, to the good, memorable roles, rather than the abundance of shlock he made in the 1980s. Even in that decade, in which he seemed to pick his scripts by throwing darts at them blindfolded, he gave wonderfully understated performances in movies such as Hannah And Her Sisters and Dressed To Kill. He doesn’t hog the screen; he isn’t a showy actor. He puts the scene ahead of himself.
In The Quiet American he only has one big emotive scene: he hobbles into the American embassy like Richard III, wearing crutches after a tight escape left him with a twisted ankle, looking for the man who is stealing his girl from him. This is Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), the quiet American of the title, a fairly young bachelor who can offer the Vietnamese girl, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) everything that Fowler can’t. He is diametrically opposed to Fowler; young, apparently untainted, an idealist. He has his own ideas about how the communists in Vietnam can be beaten. Remarkable, that Greene should have written this story – inspired by a meeting he himself had with an American in Vietnam – so long before the Americans were officially involved in that country’s war.
In some ways the story is classical; a love triangle playing out to a war-torn backdrop. But the setting isn’t just there for exoticism; it’s a palpable, dangerous environment where an increasing number of bodies is piling up; the corpses of those caught between warring factions and opposing ideals. It becomes increasingly clear to Fowler that the American presence in Vietnam is just as ominous as the communists in the North, and that Pyle’s fresh-faced optimism might be hiding something. The most chilling moment in the movie involves Pyle’s reaction to an explosion in a restaurant.
Of the central characters, the victim is Phuong. That isn’t to say the movie uses her as a device; as played by Do Thi Hai Yen she has both vulnerability and inner determination; she loves Fowler, but she is aware that Pyle might be the wiser option. From the audience’s point of view, we trust Fowler more, because he is more obviously dishonest. His flaws are all over his face, and he barely tries to hide them. The casting of Brendan Fraser, though criticised by some, is ideal for Pyle; his all-American, slightly goofy charm makes the role all the more ambiguous. It’s easy to see why Fowler likes him, and why he feels so betrayed by him.
The adaptation, by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, subtly acknowledges what we know follows these events; as well as newspaper cuttings at the end the whole tone of the final sequence in the film is pessimistic (more so even than the novel). The photography – moody, evoking exoticism and danger – is by the excellent Christopher Doyle. Noyce, whose unusual career has included directing mainstream works like Dead Calm, Clear and Present Danger and Salt, seemed to take 2002 as a year for himself; he made what is possibly his best film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, that same year.
Almost a decade on, the film stands up well (it was filmed once before, less faithfully, with Michael Redgrave in the Caine role, in 1958 – before it was known just how prescient the story was). It’s an old-fashioned political thriller that is most interested in its characters. Alden and Thomas aren’t lying when they say they love Phuong, though they may lie about many other things, even to themselves. Phuong is appropriately beautiful, but she’s also intelligent enough to know when she’s being manipulated; she can ultimately see through these guys. They are trapped in their current situation, but not in the way that the local Vietnamese people are. The Vietnamese are trapped by circumstance; Thomas and Alden are trapped by their own natures.
FILM: 4 out of 5
A well-crafted, patient character-driven thriller. All three leads are very good, and Caine is at his absolute best; it seems to have inspired him, or inspired his agent at least, because since then he has appeared in far more good movies than bad.
VISUALS: 1.5 out of 5
Incredibly bad. The film is shot on grainy stock, and that grain is preserved on the disc, as it ought to be, but – and in fairness I hadn’t seen it since its release – I don’t remember it looking quite this grainy in the cinema. The image is so undefined it flickers around the edge of the screen, so even though the grain is preserved it doesn’t look anything like celluloid. Probably the worst Blu-Ray transfer I’ve seen.
AUDIO: 2.5 out of 5
Nothing particularly special here either although it’s an improvement over the image quality. Dialogue is clear enough but it’s hardly the most immersive sound mix I’ve heard.
EXTRAS: 3 out of 5
A fairly decent, if standard, collection: a cast-and-crew commentary, ‘Anatomy of a Scene’ feature, making-of featurette. All were available on the standard DVD release.
PRESENTATION: 3 out of 5
Easy-to-use, clearly laid out menus, standard packaging. The image quality of the menu is considerably sharper than the movie itself.
OVERALL: 3 out of 5
The movie itself is well worth revisiting, but this really is a case where you might as well just get the standard DVD copy.
The Quiet American is available on Blu-Ray now.