The Quiet American
A film directed by Phillip Noyce
adapted and written by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan
from a novel by Graham Greene
The new film from director Phillip Noyce, from the 1955 novel by Graham Greene, adapted by screenwriters Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan is a very successful presentation of Greene's original. The film skillfully emphasizes the timeless elements that transcend the topical and brings to the fore themes that are relevant and resonant in the present.
That Noyce - whose previous credits include the effective thriller Dead Calm and big budget, explosion-filled Action/Adventure films including Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger - manages to make Greene's taut psychological allegory work on both the literal and the symbolic level is a tribute to his grasp of the material. His skill at drawing highly-charged but tightly-controlled performances from his principle actors and supporting their work with carefully-balanced pacing and production is what makes the story work.
Greene's explorations (not only here, but in many of his books) of the interface between personal psychology and wider political and social consequences, delves into the whole question of how "history" is made, on the level of the individual, through personal ethical, moral and psychological choices - a central question still being played out in our lives every day.
Given that the book on which this film is based was published half-a-century ago, its relevance and resonance is amazing - and due to the fact that Greene's analysis penetrated far below the surface, to the enduring psychological well-springs that propel human behavior.
The narrative centers on British journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine). He is an aging, world-weary realist, who has made a life for himself in Saigon. With a job that allows him great autonomy- up to a point; a wife - from whom he is estranged - back in England; and a beautiful young Vietnamese lover with whom he lives, Fowler has built for himself a pleasant and satisfying though fragile situation.
When handsome, brash, American man-of-action Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) arrives on the scene it becomes obvious just how tentative Fowler's world is. Pyle is immediately taken with Fowler's lover, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), and she is obviously attracted to his youth and virile self-confidence. The threat posed by his younger rival distresses Fowler more than he allows himself to show - for his attachment to Phuong and the way of life she represents for him is obviously deeper than even he is aware.
This "love-triangle" is played out against a background of international intrigue, as the French are struggling first to maintain control of their colony, and then to withdraw with as much dignity and decorum as possible. Pyle, who represents himself as a "medical aid worker" is gradually revealed to be a covert operative of the US, working to install a puppet government friendly to his country, rather than allow the popular nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh - who is a Communist - to come to power
Eventually, Fowler is called upon to make the decision, fraught with ambiguity, on emotional, ethical and moral levels, which is the crux of the film. Hampton and Schenkkan have stayed true to the novel, in presenting Fowler's dilemma, and his response, with dead-pan objectivity - leaving the audience to draw any judgements for themselves.
Noyce and the scriptwriters convey the growing sense of unease, the necessity of making a decision, with a measured deliberateness that makes the building pressure on Fowler manifest, like the excruciating torture of man being slowly pressed to death. Fowler, the professional journalist, the objective observer, is forced to become a "man-of-action," to "take sides." This basic human struggle, between the impulse to preserve the safety of restraint and the impulse to embrace the risks and rewards of engagement, is the central emotional pivot of the story.
The always-complex motivations that inform our choices - the impossibility of real "objectivity" and the all-too-human pettiness and selfishness that are always part of our most high-minded self-deceptions are the universal complications that give the story its enduring interest and make it relevant on many levels and across the time frame.
At the same time, the story is clearly an allegory about the passing away of the colonial way of life of the European empires, and the rise of the idealistic Neo-imperialism of the US. Fowler represents the painfully-learned wisdom of colonials. His feeble and desperate, though ultimately "successful," attempts to hold on to what he possesses are clearly seen as securing only a very temporary and costly "victory." Pyle stands-in for the hubris of the "can-do" spirit that frames the world in terms of "problems" and "solutions." and has arrogant confidence in its ability to impose its vision on the world.
The film, unlike the novel, also has the advantage of hindsight, that allows both Fowler's ascendance and Pyle's eclipse to be seen in an historical context that suggests the intractability of all historical reality, as both of their aspirations are eventually swept away by the unpredictable progress of actual events. Noyce underlines this - in a way that might have been too obvious and assertive for Greene's sensibilities - with an Ozymanidian coda at the end, where in a montage of newspaper headlines - with Fowler's by-line - the unrolling of the U.S.'s Viet Nam debacle is recalled.
The love-triangle as metaphor - particularly as applied to international relations, and particularly as applied to US/British relations with regard to Viet Nam - in the 1950s, for heaven's sake - was not only original, it was preternaturally prescient. That such insights as Greene offers can be applied to current events with equally provocative results testifies to the depth of his understanding.
There is an earlier filmed version of this book, made in 1958. Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed, from his own adapted screenplay. The treatment is much more obvious and melodramatic. The heroic young American is played by real-life Korean-War-hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy, and the British journalist is the redoubtable Michael Redgrave.
Greene objected strenuously to this adaptation. The story is told in a much less nuanced way, with the defeat of Pyle's altruistic idealism - as it is pictured here - by the forces of intrigue, seen as a tragic but necessary self-sacrifice in the progress of Democracy and Pyle himself seen as a "hero." The selfishness of Redgrave's Fowler is emphasized, and what appears as his well-informed and respectful caution in the Noyce version is represented as cowardice, spite and impotence. This interpretation of the characters illustrates- without meaning to - Bertrand Russell's observation that "the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure, and the intelligent are full of doubt."
The contrast between the two versions confirms the fact there is - occasionally - a powerful argument for remaking a classic film. Noyce brings the complex results of our multi-layered psycho-socio-political development in the last half-century to bear on the story - to tell it in a way Greene essayed in the book, but which was too complicated, unresolved and morally-ambiguous for the mass audience of the 1950s.
In it's own right, this version of The Quiet American is very well made. The script is deliberately-paced - allowing the audience plenty of time to reflect and absorb, and giving the actors plenty of room to breathe. The action proceeds at the speed of the emotional development, and not, as in so many mass-market films, vise-versa. The explosion-every-five-seconds pace of a typical "action" film is not the only legitimate tempo. Thoughtful films require more reflective pacing, and Noyce has had the courage to allow it here, at the risk of alienating the television-trained, constant-stimulation-demanding sector of the movie audience.
The dialogue is beautifully written - a bit literary, yes, but after all, it's from a Graham Greene novel and I think the screenwriters are justified in including a bit of the original poetry of the words. It may not be strictly speaking "realist," but it sets the mood, it is effective and expressive - and it is beautiful.
The acting is excellent. Caine's performance is nearly faultless. He has given us reason to expect great things from him (despite a fair number of disappointing "I did it for the money" walk-throughs) and in this film he captures the excruciating dilemma in which Fowler finds himself with a sincerity that is sometimes painful to watch. Anyone can play "world-weary," but few could convey the pain, disappointment and yearning concealed behind that veneer with the wrenching honesty Caine does here.
Brendan Fraser, an actor who has embarrassed himself in films like George of the Jungle and Monkeybone, but redeemed himself with work in such films as School Ties and Gods and Monsters, adds another role to the plus side with his fine performance. He portrays Pyle as a complicated mix of sincere idealist and cynical pragmatist; selfish, egotistical and ambitious, but at the same time capable of being generous, honest, self-reflective and genuinely likeable.
To embody such contradictions in a coherent character is one of the greatest tests for an actor. Fraser's inherent charm has brought him a long way, but here it is the dark, manipulative side of that winning personality, its contamination by overweening self-confidence and ruthless singleness of purpose that create the dramatic tension which animates the character and provides the suitably enigmatic foil for Fowler's own uncertainties and self-contradictions.
Do Thi Hai Yen does a creditable job as Phuong. A delicate and beautiful presence, she projects a charming, apparently (but not actually) child-like innocence as she moves without guile or embarrassment from Fowler to Pyle and back again. Her opacity and profound pragmatism are appropriately emblematic of her country as a prize that various powers want to exploit for their own purposes.
The production values are fittingly low-key. Noyce has played down the beauty of the country, the "exotic" character of the locations, foregone the "beauty shot," in favor of good, focused story-telling. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who cut his teeth in Hong Kong cinema and created the look of Noyce's visually spectacular Rabbit-proof Fence, shows his skill here not by obviously virtuoso camera work, but by a moderation and discipline that subordinates style to substance.
The music - much of it Vietnamese popular and folk recordings - gives an interesting sense of the blending of the familiar with the exotic. Renditions of French popular music in the local dance club where Phuong works are particularly convincing in creating a sense of colonialist cultural displacement.
It is an interesting coincidence that this film - which was planned in early 2001 and shot in 2002 - is coming out at just this moment. At a time when many of the same dynamics are at work in the world - Pyle's justification of his proxy's actions, "In the end, I will have saved some lives!" is exactly the same ends-justify-the-means argument some are making today - The Quiet American is timely, provocative and important. The film is well-acted, well-directed, well-written - certainly in the first rank of recent films. It is an impressive and worthwhile piece of film-making.
That's my take on it. What's yours?