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The Quiet American

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  • Noel Vera
    The quite American Noel Vera Graham Greene nowadays never seems to dominate our attention, yet never seems to totally leave it, either. After a recent major
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2003
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      The quite American

      Noel Vera

      Graham Greene nowadays never seems to dominate our attention, yet
      never seems to totally leave it, either. After a recent major
      production of his "The End of the Affair" (and through the '80s, a
      string of TV adaptations of his other works) we have "The Quiet
      American" (2002)--the second after Joseph Mankiewicz's 1958 film.
      Greene was appalled at that picture, the way it flipped his novel's
      meaning around so that the eponymous American was an innocent and
      the English journalist the villain; Philip Noyce's version is more
      faithful to Greene (though at least one person--Jean Luc Godard, no
      less (and no less ironically)--claimed the not-as-anti-American
      stance of the film was actually an improvement).

      The plot at first glance seems simple enough (though nothing ever
      stays simple with Greene): Fowler (Michael Caine, essaying the role
      first played by Michael Redgrave) has been in Vietnam for years, has
      a mistress named Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen, previously seen in Tran Anh
      Hung's "Vertical Rays of the Sun"), and has no intention of going
      back to England. He meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a worker in
      an American economic aid mission (he specializes in the prevention
      and treatment of trachoma), who promptly falls in love with Phuong,
      and tries to take her away from Fowler.

      It's as allegorical a love triangle as any you might find: the
      beautiful Phuong, meant to represent aspects of virgin, whore, and
      Vietnam, is contested by the vulgar, naïve American with a bright
      future ahead of him (brighter, it turns out, than anyone suspected)
      and the jaded, amoral European, who can only promise stagnation and
      decay (he can't marry Phuong because his wife, a Catholic, refuses
      to divorce him). It's an old conflict, staged in a Southeast Asian
      setting--youth vs. age, idealism vs. amorality, America vs. the Old
      World (Nabokov would restate this in more sexual terms with
      his "Lolita"). The concept is Greene's and the film's characters,
      faithful to Greene, suffer accordingly--everyone except Fowler is
      pretty much a caricature. You especially note the lack of texture in
      Phuong: as the object of desire of both men, Ms. Do relies more on
      her slim, boyish figure and pretty face than on anything she
      actually says or does onscreen. Phuong has her moments--like when
      Fowler demands she turn Pyle out and she hesitates, unable to bring
      herself to hurt Fowler; later we see suggestions of defiance, of her
      perhaps loving Pyle or at least felling morally disgusted with
      Fowler, but the suggestions seem to come more from plot necessity
      than from any inner self. Solemn placidity does not necessarily
      evoke fascinating mystery--as, say, Greta Garbo, or Jeanne Moreau,
      or even Maggie Cheung might tell you.

      Fraser fares a little better; he's note-perfect as the stumblebum
      buffoon. When we learn more about him, the innocence seems to desert
      him; later, when all is revealed, the innocence is restored--
      restored, and running frighteningly hand-in-hand in Pyle's mind with
      his hidden abilities and power. In some scenes there's a masklike
      opacity to his face that's a little chilling; you see the same
      opacity in Chinese youths during the Cultural Revolution, and in the
      Hitlerjungen in World War 2. Part of the power of the novel, and the
      film does manage to convey some of this to the big screen, is in the
      way Greene seems to evoke the deadly serious yet somehow cartoonish
      manner Americans handle their foreign policy--an appalling yet
      fascinating mixture of pratfall idealism, willful ignorance, and
      absolute power.

      Pyle's foolishness and idealism are satisfying, it's his passion
      that's not: when Pyle sits down with Fowler and explains how he fell
      in love with Phuong, he might as well be trying to explain the
      pathology of trachoma--Pyle's love sounds every bit as contrived as
      his cover story sounds convincing (of course his love might be meant
      to be seen as contrived…but that only begs the question: why does
      Pyle trouble himself with a broken-down old journalist and his taxi-
      dancer lover?).

      What brings the film to life, more than Greene's rather obvious
      symbols and doomy prose (spoken in voiceover narration to get that
      proper "literary" feel), more than all the cardboard characters
      stacked one atop the other, what puts a recognizably human face to
      all this, is Michael Caine's performance as Fowler. It's a major
      role, perhaps the best he's had in years, and it's every bit as
      controlled and detailed in its quiet moments (his tired exasperation
      at the letters from his paper begging him to come back to England)
      as in its showier ones (a scene where Caine limps with a cane into
      Pyle's office and raises hell). His irritation with and reluctant
      affection for Pyle helps humanize the American for us, and delivers
      the final sting of the eventual tragedy. Caine treats Fowler's
      moments of conscience the way Greene would, as bodily aches every
      bit as insistently painful as his ankle, which is twisted at one
      point (both injuries demand his undivided attention). Caine shows us
      the heart of what Greene wants us to see: of a soul weary in its
      comfort, being poked and prodded back into uncomfortable moral

      Australian director Philip Noyce steps away from his commercially
      successful thrillers ("Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger")
      and less successful ones ("The Saint") to actually do something
      interesting again (like "Newsfront," his early film about newsreel
      cameramen). With Chris Doyle (the cinematographer of choice when
      you're a Hollywood production in Southeast Asia) and Christopher
      Hampton ("Dangerous Liaisons"), he crafts a velvety, half-lit world
      of hidden menaces and ambiguous meanings, punctuated by sudden
      bursts of violence. He captures many of Greene's nuances (the way,
      for example, sympathy keeps shifting from Fowler to Pyle and back
      again), and manages to stage--successfully, I think--some of
      Greene's lovely little bits of dramatic business (the fateful book,
      to be opened before the fateful window).

      What Noyce doesn't seem to have that perhaps the finest film
      adaptation of Greene had would be Greene himself. "Quiet" bears many
      resemblances to Greene's 1949 thriller "The Third Man:" American
      waif wanders into darkly complex world, watched by weary European
      eyes, and falls in love with enigmatically beautiful native. "Third"
      is lighter in tone than "Quiet"--Greene regards it as one of his
      lesser "entertainments"--yet benefits greatly from his own hand
      shaping and developing the material (the novel, in effect, was
      written with the screenplay ultimately in mind). "Third" has a much
      tighter script, meant to unfold in under two hours instead of over
      several hundred pages, yet the relationships develop far more
      persuasively (Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) falls in love with his
      native, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), in a subtler, more tentative
      manner--no bald declarations of love here). There are perhaps no
      dominating performances in it like Caine's Fowler, but there is an
      entire film's worth of memorable ones, from Cotten's hapless Martin
      to Orson Welles' indelible Harry Lime, to even the balloon salesman
      who makes a last-minute appearance at Lime's capture.

      It helps that director Carol Reed took the trouble to procure Anton
      Karas' uniquely jaunty zither music, and that he has Cotten speak
      his voiceover narration in an equally jaunty manner--to act as
      corrective and ironic counterpoint to Greene's dark sensibility. It
      helps that Reed with the help of master cinematographer Robert
      Krasker created one of the most distinctive worlds in all of cinema,
      the skewed, shadowed world of postwar Vienna, and that Welles
      improvised Lime's unforgettable little speech about brotherly love
      and the cuckoo clock. "Quiet" is a skillfully made film (made even
      more relevant by troubling parallels with America's present
      involvement in Iraq), but with perhaps too much reverence for the
      source material; "Third," in which Greene argued for a happier
      ending, saying an "entertainment" doesn't deserve so much cynicism
      (ironically, the novel of "Quiet" has Fowler ultimately getting his
      divorce)--"Third" has withstood the test of time, and stands today
      as a classic of world cinema.

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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