Movie review, 'The Quiet American'

"The Quiet American" begins on a note of lush melancholy: We hear Michael Caine's voice murmuring a heartfelt poem to Saigon over a '50s view of the city. From those first few moments, we can tell the movie is going to be something special. The rich tableau of nighttime Saigon, lights glinting behind inky waters, seethes with romance. So does Caine's voice, instantly setting the movie's mixed tones of love and violence.

Directed by Phillip Noyce from one of Graham Greene's most powerful novels, his 1955 tale of American meddling and British impotence in Vietnam, "Quiet American" is a brilliantly conceived and crafted work, far better than the 1958 version directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. It's a psychological thriller of murder, war and intrigue that grips and engages on many different levels. In the central role of disillusioned British war correspondent Thomas Fowler, Caine gives an incredibly moving and suggestive performance, one of the best of his career.

Set in 1952 Vietnam, in the midst of the French colonial conflict, it's a surprisingly faithful version of Greene's tale of an "innocent" Yank government operative named Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) who comes into fatal contact with the knowing, world-weary Fowler. Pyle is the "quiet American" of the title, a seemingly naive young idealist who is found murdered in the film's opening scenes. Fowler is Pyle's opposite: jaded, self-absorbed, deceptive. The movie is a love story in which the two men become rivals over a woman - but are just as psychologically knotted together themselves.

We get their story in flashback, during the investigation of Pyle's murder by caustic French colonial Inspector Vigot (Serbian actor Rade Sherbedgia). Fowler and Pyle, different as they are, love the same woman - Fowler's mistress, the exquisite Vietnamese former dance-hall girl Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) - and both are equally entranced with Vietnam. For Fowler, the country is his last stop, a final refuge from London's "dirty rain" and his own loveless marriage. Pyle, a fresh-faced dynamo, is supposedly stationed there to help with medical aid and technology.

As the two men duel quietly over the strangely quiescent Phuong, watched by her mercenary sister (Pham Thi Mai Hoa), they also interact with the local Europeans and Vietnamese, including the real-life insurgent General The (Quang Hai). Each, in his own way, acts as destroyer - Pyle by participating in murderous CIA plots to help create a "third force" to rule the country, and Fowler by acts of betrayal and deception in which political idealism and personal rage are uncomfortably mixed.

As the movie retreats into the past, examining the events that climax in Pyle's murder, we gradually see that nothing is what it seems - especially Vietnam.

Deeply intelligent, visually sumptuous and rife with political and historical ironies, "The Quiet American" is a movie that may be too subtle and knowledgeable for its own good. You can only hope audiences find their way to it, that they won't be dissuaded by the movie's severe critique of American foreign policy in Vietnam, a stance that may explain its post 9/11 shelving by Miramax.

The critique comes from Greene himself, a brilliant novelist who was also a WWII intelligence agent with a deep knowledge of international realpolitik. Yet the story is as much about personal struggle and pain as national trauma. That's what makes it such rich acting material and such a wonderful opportunity for Caine. Always a great movie minimalist, Caine creates instant empathy while also exposing corrupting forces, and as Fowler he can bring all his powers stunningly into play. With his great mournful eyes peering out of that weathered, handsome, ironically smiling face, Caine conveys the desperate passion of an older man threatened by the rivalry of a younger man whom, almost unaccountably, he both likes and fears.

Fraser's hunky good looks and breezy comic style have been exploited in too many bad comedies like "Dudley Do-Right" and "George of the Jungle." But playing against Caine brings out his best instincts; he cleverly gives us both the man's charming surface and darker interior, with a depth and smartness we may have forgotten Fraser had. He's much more successful in this role than Mankiewicz's Pyle, Audie Murphy - just as director Noyce and his excellent screenwriters (playwrights Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan) are incomparably better at realizing Greene's themes, characters and politics.

Noyce gives "The Quiet American" a visual filigree and flair for action that most movies this literary and smart never receive. He brings perception and sensitivity to the dramatic scenes, but he also adds all the big-movie pyrotechnic skills he's developed in shallow but exciting high-budget movies like "The Bone Collector," "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger." Indeed, Noyce, who began his career making independent and art films before "Dead Calm" endeared him to Hollywood, turned down Clancy's "The Sum of All Fears" precisely to make "The Quiet American" and the equally ambitious and high quality (but sadly underseen) "Rabbit-Proof Fence."

It was a good choice. "The Sum of All Fears" was lucrative malarkey. But like Carol Reed's great movies "The Third Man" or "The Fallen Idol," "The Quiet American" is an instant classic and a dramatic beauty, a film that gets us to the core of Greene's chilly, dark and romantic view of the post-war world.

4 stars (out of 4) "The Quiet American"
Directed by Phillip Noyce; written by Christopher Hampton, Robert Schenkkan, based on the novel by Graham Greene; photographed by Christopher Doyle; edited by John Scott; production designed by Roger Ford; music by Craig Armstrong; produced by William Horberg, Stefan Ahrenberg. A Miramax release; opens Friday, Feb. 7. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: R (violence, some language).
Thomas Fowler - Michael Caine
Alden Pyle - Brendan Fraser
Phuong - Do Thi Hai Yen
Inspector Vigot - Rade Sherbedgia
Hinh - Tzi Ma
Joe Tunney - Robert Stanton
Bill Granger - Holmes Osborne Phuong's Sister - Pham Thi Mai Hoa

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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