IN "THE Quiet American," Thomas Fowler knows the world around him is going to hell.

That world is colonial Indochina in the 1950s. The communists, the French, a smattering of Americans (sniffing around the territory that will soon become their military folly) and, lately, a charismatic but tyrannical leader named General The (Quang Hai), are all maneuvering to stake a claim to this dauntingly unconquerable country.

Fowler (Michael Caine), a rather jaded correspondent for the London Times, has been covering this place for years. He's seen it all before. To him, everyone is suspect. Colonial history is a broken record, repeating the same mistakes. But no one back home seems to want to hear the ugly truth. In fact, his newspaper is sending signals that it might be time to come home.

But for Fowler, Vietnam is a sweet, opiate trap, despite the death and destruction. He's hooked by the steamy mystique and not just because of the opium. And there's his live-in, much-younger lover Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), to whom he is clearly devoted.

This is why the arrival of bumbling American newcomer Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) is Fowler's biggest threat. Pyle, an aid worker given to baseball caps and goofy sincerity, immediately falls in love with Phuong. His attraction to Phuong -- and Pyle insists on complete, gentlemanly candor with Fowler -- soon exploits a weakness. Phuong desperately wants to be married. But Fowler, stymied by a wife in England who refuses to grant him a divorce, cannot fulfill her desire.

The question is, what can Fowler do about any of these problems? Does a morally ambivalent man at the end of his run in Vietnam, one likely to lose the love of his life, have the power to do anything? While Fowler investigates General The's murky agenda, and befriends the man who would take Phuong away, we wait for something momentous. It's coming.

Director Phillip Noyce's adaptation of the Graham Greene novel (it was scripted by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan) has the dramatically ethical benefit of upholding the anti-Americanism of the book. (Greene emphatically condemned Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1958 movie version of the same name for morally inverting the book to make the American a hero.) And Caine's imperial world weariness gives the movie a vital potency. Without the actor, "The Quiet American" would be a respectable foreign-hellhole drama, something along the lines of "The Year of Living Dangerously." But thanks to his subtly nuanced performance, there's a deeper dimension to everything. He's snappily ironic at times, sometimes amazingly delicate, always engaging. Although the triangular tussle among Fowler, Pyle and Phuong is clearly a symbolic struggle for the soul of Vietnam, the movie boils down to one man who is finally forced to make moral choices. Caine makes it so.

THE QUIET AMERICAN (R, 100 minutes) -- Contains wartime violence, gruesome injuries, some obscenity and sexual situations. At Landmark Theatres Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle.

Michael Caine gives a nuanced performance as a newspaper reporter in "The Quiet American."