THE QUIET AMERICAN is a subtle, deeply disturbing film with a performance by Michael Caine that is a marvel of understated elegance, delivering an emotional punch of prodigious proportions. Based on the novel by Graham Greene, it tells the story of a romantic triangle that is emblematic of the intrigues surrounding Vietnam at the time the story takes place, 1953. Two men, a dissolute European, and an almost painfully naïve American vie for the person, if not the affections, of a beautiful Vietnamese woman from a good family fallen on hard times who keeps her own council while accommodating which ever of them can make her the best deal for her long term welfare..
Caine is Thomas Fowler, a reporter for the London Times based in Saigon. Hes settled into a comfortable life there far from the wife who wont divorce him, visiting his office as just another stop on his daily rounds of drinking tea, schmoozing with his fellow ex-pats and smoking opium between bouts of making love to his beautiful young mistress, Phuong. This idyllic existence threatens to end when the home office tells him to close the Saigon office and an amiable American by the name of Pyle, the quiet one of the title, falls in love with Phuong and offers her something Fowler cantmarriage. Fowler becomes a man galvanized with no clear idea of what should be done, only that he much now, like a shark, keep moving or die.
Pyle is attached to the American mission and the very definition of an all-American typeidealistic, enthusiastic, and sincere. His only fault seems to be that hes a bad dancer and that perhaps he is just a little too naïve when it comes to the lay of the political land. And then theres the way he keeps turning up in places that a medical attaché in charge of healing eye infections just shouldnt, like in a rebel leaders camp. Or on a French military maneuver where civilians are massacred. Or in a town square moments after its been bombed. Intellectually, Fowler, and we, should be suspicious, but Frasers open, guileless face and earnest reading, delivered as few other than Fraser can, bespeaks an innocence that is above question.
This being Graham Greene, of course there is much more than meets the eye here, from the first shot of Pyle floating face-down in a river, blood pouring from his lifeless body, to a textbook definition Fowler looks up, there is no one answer and finding one leads inevitably to more questions. Guilt becomes relative and, as in realpolitik, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
Noyces direction keeps surface action deceptively calm, yet never lets us forget the plots and counterplots that lurk beneath. The simple act of opening a book, innocuous in and of itself, carries the weight of an assassins bullet precisely because of that calmness, the seeming lack of emotion that the act itself belie.
With so much going on beneath the surface, with characters saying one thing and meaning another, hence performances are key, beginning with Caine. Its a tricky part, because though it is Fowler with whom we sympathize, the literate script by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan makes clear, as did Greene, that he is less than sympathetic. Self-indulgent, seeing what he chooses to see, the genteel façade and ready wit mask a numb hollowness. Yet, there is an undercurrent in Caines world-weary and too savvy face that speaks of a life of missed opportunities and aching failure. He is also the only one in the story who is transparent to us in his motives and his desires, imbuing him with an almost childlike quality. When he looks at Phuang, Noyce has the camera go into slow motion, making her movements dreamlike and impossibly graceful. It is what Fowler imagines her to be rather than what she is and though he seems to grasp that on some level, he prefers the fantasy and there is in that something so sad, so poignant, that we move beyond contempt or pity to empathy. In this world of seductive subterfuge that Noyce has created, where light and shadow are used as art direction par excellence, it almost seems reasonable, if dangerous, to choose the fantasy.
As for Do Thi Hai Yen as Phuang she remains properly enigmatic while seeming to be completely open.. Phxx means phoenix in Vietnamese and that cant be a coincidence. Beautiful, submissive and loyal to Fowler, yet she is still, albeit unwillingly (or is she?) drawn into her older sisters machinations, machinations stemming from bitterness, avarice, jealousy, or affection? Maybe all, maybe none. As Caines voiceover narration that begins and ends the film states, a few questions about Vietnam are answered right away when you travel there, for the rest, you just have to live it. There are no shortcuts. And there are no shortcuts in THE QUIET AMERICAN, just a haunting film of mythic savagery and beauty.