Michael Caine delivers a haggard, rheumy-eyed performance in "The Quiet American," one that behind all the British reserve and restraint possesses volcanic dynamism. Indeed, Caine's Thomas Fowler, the narrator of Graham Greene's mesmerizing story of passion and political intrigue in 1950s Vietnam, is the perfect antipode to Daniel Day-Lewis's Bill Cutting in "Gangs of New York." Where Day-Lewis explodes, Caine ruminates; where Day-Lewis sneers and spits, Caine rarely raises his voice. Still, Fowler is every bit as compellingly watchable as Bill Cutting, and Caine's performance stands head-to-head with Day-Lewis's for muscularity and fierce intelligence. These are the two best performances of the past year.
For Caine's triumphant turn we have the Australian director Phillip Noyce partly to thank. Noyce, viewers will remember, recently directed "Rabbit-Proof Fence," another bright spot in 2002. As he did with that film's extraordinary -- and largely true -- story, Noyce handles Greene's classic novel with forthrightness and maturity. The narrative is lean, the supporting performances are solid, and, perhaps most crucially, the emotional tone of the piece is spot-on. Fans of Greene's novel will find the book well served by Noyce's compressions and interpretations; at the same time, those who have "The Quiet American" on their future reading lists will not find that experience diluted one whit by the film's visions. Noyce has left out enough of Greene's nuances -- especially those dealing with religion -- to make the book and film two discrete works of art.
The year is 1952 and Fowler, a British journalist, has been covering the French conflict in Vietnam long enough to make him a grizzled veteran. He has acquired a Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) as well as an opium habit; as the tumbrils of war approach, Fowler has retreated into the dreamscape of the pipe and a benumbed apoliticism. He's an adamantly neutral, emotionally distant protagonist on par with Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," and like the latter, he will have the carapace of his cynicism punctured by passion for a beautiful woman. That his action has none of the moral clarity of Rick's final gesture will surprise no one familiar with Greene's preference for ethical shadows and shades of gray.
These feelings are brought to a head with the arrival of Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a U.S. government aid worker whose flawless orthodontics, outgoing manner and unflappable idealism mark him as the embodiment of American Empire. He's in Vietnam to help cure eye disease, but he keeps showing up in the same hot spots Fowler is covering for his paper. What's more, Pyle is showing a keen interest in Phuong. Before long the two men are rivals for her affections, and Pyle's mission in Vietnam becomes increasingly subject to question.
Noyce boldly embraces the allegorical elements of "The Quiet American," making it clear in Fowler's weary voice-over that Phuong is symbolic of Vietnam, a country as manipulated and fought over by France and America as the woman is by Fowler and Pyle. But, true to Greene's own subtle genius, the film doesn't succumb to polemic, which has never been able to capture the wayward impulses of the human heart. Rather, Noyce directs "The Quiet American" as a straightforward thriller (the movie opens with a murder), with the story's symbolic and geopolitical undercurrents adding depth but never distraction.
Just as important as Noyce's dexterity in bringing Greene's narrative to the screen is his success in evoking the lush, decadent, enveloping atmosphere of 1950s Southeast Asia. Whether in the French cafes of Saigon or the verdant depths of the outlying countryside, "The Quiet American" is saturated in the humid romanticism -- and tragic beauty -- of Vietnam. Noyce's cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, is best known for his vibrant work filming in the neon jungle of Hong Kong, and that experience serves him well in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where "The Quiet American" was filmed. The city's river walkways and neon signs come to a special kind of seductive visual life at night; compared with the arid flatness of noontime, evening holds all manner of mystery and intrigue. Of course, mystery and intrigue in this particular time and place are of much higher stakes than in the garden-variety murder procedural or romantic triangle. It's a fact that Noyce never loses sight of, and that sense of mournful prescience suffuses "The Quiet American" with foreboding, regret and a grave, haunting power.
The Quiet American (118 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row) is rated R for images of violence and some strong language.