Director: Phillip Noyce. US-UK. 2002. 101mins
The fatal global consequences of blundering American naivety are brought into sharp focus by Phillip Noyce's elegantly understated adaptation of the Graham Greene novel. First published in 1955, Greene's spare, prophetic fiction told of America's misguided adventures in the politics of Indo-China through a love triangle between a cynical British journalist and an idealistic young American who are both infatuated with a beautiful Vietnamese woman. A previous film version in 1958, co-starring Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy, was a memorable betrayal of the source material. Noyce's version is more faithful and more telling although it is difficult to imagine a mass American audience embracing any film that fails to present the world in black and white but only offers them troubling shades of grey. The current absence of an American release date threatens to spoil a potential annus mirabilis for Noyce, who has found an artistic second wind with the impressive combination of The Quiet American and Rabbit Proof Fence. The rest of the world should have no such qualms about placing a superior literary adaptation with noteworthy performances.
One of the immediate advantages that Noyce has over his predecessor is the gorgeous visual touch of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who makes the Saigon of 1952 every bit as sumptuous and seductive as the Hong Kong of 1962 in Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood For Love. As Michael Caine's languid, voice-over narration sets the mood and sketches in the background, Doyle conjures up the sights and smells of a land that " promises everything in return for your soul".
Told in flashback, the story begins with the news that young American Alden Pyle (Fraser) has been found murdered. His friend and romantic rival, Times journalist Thomas Fowler (Caine) identifies the body and claims there is nothing he can say that will help the police with their enquiries. The audience then follow the changing thread of his relationship with a young man who was far more dangerous than he could ever have imagined.
A big, gauche bear of an American, Pyle had arrived in Saigon as part of an American medical team. He befriended Fowler and fell in love with his mistress Phuong (Yen). Acting throughout with impeccable manners and a keen sense of integrity, Pyle eventually charms Phuong into leaving the older, married man.
A committed cynic, Fowler finds his sense of detachment increasingly hard to maintain as he learns of atrocities against the civilian population and the American enthusiasm for a general who represents an alternative to the competing forces of Communism and French colonialism. He begins to trace the connections between the rise of this third force and the activities of the American Economic Mission where Pyle works. A terrorist attack in the centre of Saigon compels him to take sides and recognise Pyle's complicity in events but he cannot entirely be sure that his subsequent actions are prompted by moral outrage or hurt pride at the loss of Phuong.
As economical as the novel in its ability to convey complex issues, The Quiet American is a model of tight, thought-provoking storytelling and assured handling of sensitive material, notably the aftermath of the terrorist attack as a stunned Fowler struggles to comprehend the carnage unfolding before him. Well cast and performed throughout, the film belongs to Caine who registers a wealth of emotion in the smallest of gestures, whether it is the wry smiles that marks his initial reaction to the quiet American or the drained, horror-struck stares as he acknowledges his own guilty motives. Constantly utilising the dramatic impact of restraint, Noyce delivers a powerful closing statement in a montage of newspaper headlines showing the direct connection between the story the audience has just witnessed and the build-up to America's inglorious involvement in the Vietnam War.
Prod co: Saga Pictures, Intermedia, Mirage Enterprises
Int'l sales: Miramax Int'l
Prods: Staffan Ahrenberg, William Horberg, Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack
Exec prods: Moritz Borman, Guy East, Chris Sievernich, Nigel Sinclair
Scr: Christopher Hampton, Robert Schenkkan based on the novel by Graham Greene
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Prod des: Roger Ford
Ed: John Scott
Music: Craig Armstrong
Main cast: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Rade Serbedzija, Tzi Ma