The Quiet American is a simple love story set in
Vietnam during the 1950s. Thomas Fowler (Caine),
a tired columnist for the London Times, and Alden
Pyle (Fraser), an American foreign aid worker, both
are in love with Phuong (Do), a beautiful young Vietnamese
woman. Since the movie starts by showing us Pyle’s dead
body, we know who she ends up with, but here, the journey
is of much greater interest than the destination. (Warning:
The movie starts with Fowler identifying his dead friend,
Pyle, and then flashing back to their meeting at the Continental
Hotel. It gets going rather slowly, with Michael Caine’s
voiceover explaining what he thinks of Pyle, where simply
having them act out the dialogue would have been more engaging.
The movie picks up speed as Pyle meets Phuong, Fowler’s
lovely mistress, and quickly—perhaps too quickly—falls in
love with her. Fowler heads to northern Vietnam to cover
the fighting and, he hopes, prevent his editor recalling
him to England, where his wife awaits. Pyle coincidentally
happens to be in that part of Vietnam and while the French
camp is being attacked, reveals his intentions toward Phuong
to Fowler, causing the two of them to have a falling-out.
Later on, Pyle saves Fowler from communist guerrillas, knowing
that letting Fowler die would have left Phuong all to him.
Eventually, tired of his inability to secure a divorce,
Phuong leaves Fowler for Pyle. At the same time, a series
of car bombings rocks the city. Soon afterward, Fowler’s
assistant reveals that Pyle is the CIA agent responsible
for the bombings and asks Fowler to choose a side by facilitating
a meeting between Pyle and a local communist cell. Fowler
asks him to explain himself and Pyle argues that by bombing
people he will ultimately save lives (huh?). Not surprisingly,
Fowler sets up his friend, leading us back to the beginning
of the movie with him IDing Pyle’s corpse.
This movie is about Fowler from his perspective, but it
would have helped if Phuong and Pyle were a little more
developed. Brendan Fraser’s bland amicability helps, but
it’s no substitute for dialogue. It’s not dramatic when
it turns out there more to Pyle than meets the eye because,
other than a bland likeable American, he never appeared
to be much of anything. Pyle and Phuong’s relationship is
similarly mysterious. How can they fall in love when they
can barely communicate? And there’s no sign of lust providing
motivation for either of them. Phuong’s wants as far as
love are never mentioned. Does she love both? Neither? Is
she a total mercenary, who’ll love anyone with a steady
job? The movie makes it clear that Fowler does love Phuong,
and he proves it by doing whatever it takes to keep her.
The Saigon of this picture was somewhat a disappointment.
I’d hoped for something brighter and more exotic, to help
explain Fowler’s attachment. But it was the first major
American movie made in Vietnam since the war. The car bombing
sequence was too telegraphed and heavy-handed to have any
emotional impact, despite the camera lingering on the death
and destruction after the explosion. However Michael Caine
and Brendan Fraser both did great jobs. Fraser’s posture,
mannerisms, and tone of voice all change during the last
act to represent the confident superspy he’s supposed to
be. It’s a decidedly more adult role for him.
Fowler’s fear of losing Phuong motivates everything he
does. Because of it he goes from spectator to active participant,
all for her, a convincing look at how love gets both the
best and worst from men. Pyle’s motivations are somewhat
murkier, and Phuong is a total cypher. This, along with
the film’s heavy-handed tactics and overwhelming sense of
self-importance prevent it from being a top contender.