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The Quiet American (R)
Official Site
Director: Phillip Noyce
Producers: William Horbert, Staffan Ahrenberg
Written by: Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan; from the novel by Graham Greene
Cast: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen

Rating: out of 5

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: Spoilers ahead.)

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.

—Woodrow Bogucki


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