A great Caine makes a great `American'

February 14, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Graham Greene's beloved Henry James judged fiction according to its quota of "felt life." In Phillip Noyce's movie of Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American, Michael Caine takes that concept one step further.

As a British journalist named Thomas Fowler in 1952 Vietnam, he not only expresses felt life, but the parts of Fowler's life that the man has ceased to feel. He conveys sardonic wisdom, a warm, erotic knowingness, and the absence of any bedrock commitment beyond the integrity of his byline. It's a remarkable performance in a film that's both shot from the heart and imbued with intelligence and insight.

A thriller, it starts like any Law & Order episode, with the discovery of a corpse - Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic American economic aid worker, who was both Fowler's friend and the new man in the life of Fowler's young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). The suspense comes from our desire to discover how Pyle wound up dead and what Fowler knows about his murder.

The tension is both psychological and political: Noyce and screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Christopher Hampton, like Greene, root it equally in Fowler's romantic quandary and in his mistrust of Pyle's search for a "third force" that would provide the Vietnamese with a choice beyond communism or French colonialism. The movie's coiling jeopardy doesn't let up even after the mysteries are solved.

The Quiet American does far more than deliver the cheap kinetic catharses of contemporary espionage adventures. This thoroughly modern movie pulls off a classical feat. It elicits the searing combination of pity and terror that leaves a viewer feeling purged.

Amazingly, it achieves this tragic stature through Caine's portrayal of a man who starts out in complete control of a carefully circumscribed existence.

Fowler has been resting on his reputation as a Vietnamese old hand who actually has gone into the field and gotten to know the country and its political players. He's become a creature of habit, relying on his Vietnamese assistant Hinh (Tzi Ma) for any journalistic leads and creating an incongruous comfort zone with Phuong, who tenderly administers opium while her country absorbs one body blow after another. He's hiding out from a London marriage gone sour - his wife won't grant him a divorce - and he's using journalistic objectivity to shield himself from any torment over Vietnam.

No one is better than Caine at radiating complicated thoughts and emotions from the spine out to the skin. He relies on a commanding yet supple bearing and tone, not actors' tricks and gestures, to pull us into the consciousness of Fowler, of Greene, of this whole movie.

Fowler, despite his flaws and limits, is the picture's brain and guiding spirit. Alden Pyle may tumble into Vietnam full of hope for democracy and ideas of planting it in Southeast Asia. But there's something opaque and dangerously impermeable about his crusading fervor - as there is about his love at first sight for Phuong and the forthright way he goes about trying to win her from Fowler. Pyle is too eager for action in a movie that depicts the risks of committing to any course of action in a political hot spot. The Quiet American captures the paradoxical quality of excitement mixed with dread that characterizes Greene's "serious" novels and entertainments alike.

Under Noyce's direction, this dynamic ambivalence seeps its way into the movie's at once lush and incisive look (Chris Doyle did the cinematography), its oxygenated yet taut movement (John Scott did the editing), and its superb ensemble performance.

Fraser, long an underrated actor, makes brilliant use of the audience's instant affection for him. He exploits his big American frame and outsized niceness to keep us off balance; we're alternately amused by his bumptious honesty in romance and worried about the depths Fowler senses beneath his amiable manner. Hai Yen is perfect as Phuong, a sweet girl from an upper-class family who seeks escape from life as a taxi dancer with the man most fit to provide a safe, loving home. She and her sister (the electric Phamn Thi Mai Hoa) are like two halves of a full personality: Phuong pliant and accommodating, her sibling steely and grasping.

Noyce builds his narrative surely, from Fowler's realization that the war and the country are moving beyond French dominance to his perception that Pyle and his cohort in the American embassy are becoming embroiled with a strongman named General The (Quang Hai). The director builds the aura of political terror with a confident, intuitive crescendo, from the aftermath of a massacre in a town called Phat Diem and a guerrilla attack on a French Vietnamese watchtower to a terrorist bombing in Saigon Square.

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