'The Quiet American' was almost silenced

Fine performance by Michael Caine brought it back, to critics' applause


February 09, 2003|By Michael Sragow | By Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

No great writer knew more about movies than Graham Greene. In the 1930s he penned inspired film criticism, and in the 1940s he wrote two classic scripts for director Carol Reed: The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). Of the dozens of movies adapted by others from Greene's novels and stories, Australian director Phillip Noyce's The Quiet American ranks with the best.

Greene himself would have applauded.

Michael Caine gives the performance of a lifetime in this potent tale of political and spiritual betrayal in 1952 Vietnam. He plays Thomas Fowler, one of Greene's nearly burnt-out cases -- a smart, jaded journalist who has made Saigon a refuge from an unhappy marriage in London. Despite the war raging between the French and the Viet Minh, he settles into a comfortable routine with his young, beautiful Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), his occasional big story, and his opium pipe. Then an American economic-aid worker named Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) enters the picture, befriends Fowler, falls in love with Phuong, and sets out to influence the fate of Vietnam in the worst possible way. Fowler, who prides himself on worldliness and objectivity, finds his allegiance to Phuong, friendship and Vietnam tested to the bone.

Although Joseph L. Mankie-wicz made a tense, evocative film version of the novel in 1958, Greene considered it "a complete treachery" because it reversed his political meanings and made Pyle a hero and Fowler a dupe.

Post-9 / 11 worries

Noyce achieves an even deeper melancholy sting without betraying his source. But audiences might never have had a chance to see this film in theaters were it not for the clout of Michael Caine.

Last summer, Caine said that The Quiet American had not yet been released because it required "so much post-production" to make contemporary Vietnam, where the film was shot, appear like Vietnam in 1952. But in a recent interview, Caine fessed up that Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein decided to delay the movie after 9 / 11 "because Harvey was worried about it seeming anti-American." Caine knew the studio was thinking of "dumping" the movie into a handful of cities without publicity or advertising. And the actor disagreed vehemently.

Weinstein's decision was "understandable at the time," director Noyce said over the phone from Los Angeles. Test screening scores plummeted in the fall of 2001. "Masochistically, we kept previewing it in New York and New Jersey, where people had raw wounds. They reacted against the film not just because of the implied criticism of American foreign policy but also because of the depiction of a terrorist bombing. But we had to keep screening because we had to complete the process -- we had all these people working on post-production, and we had limited funds."

The 2002 Toronto Film Festival became the ultimate test screening. Happily, the American press responded with raves for the film and for Caine's performance. With visions of a Best Actor Academy Award for Caine, Miramax opened the film for two-week Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles in November. The movie opens in Baltimore this Friday. (It's the first local premiere for the Rotunda Cinematheque.)

When Noyce initially called him about The Quiet American, Caine remembers that he said, "You were born to play Thomas Fowler." To Caine, this came as a surprise. After all, Caine epitomizes the Cockney as superstar; his popular and critical ascent throughout the '60s and '70s marked a working-class conquest of cutting-edge British arts and entertainment. And the way Caine read The Quiet American, "Fowler is a character who is autobiographical for Greene. Greene was of a much higher upper-middle-class stratum of society than I was -- much better educated in much better schools, and from a much richer financial background. But I read an interview with Phillip where they asked him why he cast me. And he said, from my speech at the Academy Awards when I won best supporting actor for The Cider House Rules; my speaking directly to the other nominees struck him as a Thomas Fowler thing to do."

In any case, the art of Caine's acting is the art of observation, not autobiography. That meshed with the art of Noyce, who has an eye that drinks in real-life atmosphere and distills it into poetry for the viewer.

A visit to Vietnam

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