Hollywood loves a good love triangle. Graham Greene produced some of literature’s finest, and in the right hands his stories can translate beautifully to the screen. Neil Jordan tried his hand at The End of the Affair in 1999, a successful venture for both him and his muse, Stephen Rea. Now Philip Noyce, who shifted away from his mainstream pedigree last year with Rabbit-Proof Fence, makes his second art-house flick in a row with the languorous Vietnam drama The Quiet American.
Michael Caine plays Thomas Fowler, a British reporter firmly ensconced in the conflicted, quickening world of 1952 Saigon. His life there is simple: He has a lovely apartment, a faithful assistant plugged into the Vietnamese rumor mill, a comfortable living and a gorgeous, much-younger girlfriend, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). He takes his tea, strolls the teeming Saigon streets and enjoys life. What he does not take is sides, content to observe and not opine about who — be they French, American, Vietnamese or anybody else — is right or wrong.
Then he meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). Pyle is an all-too-earnest American who claims to be in the country as part of a medical team, although there’s never a moment when his ulterior motives are hidden from view. But his political ties and purposes are not really the focus of Fowler’s mistrust. The Englishman senses that Pyle’s personality is too good to be true, a suspicion that’s confirmed when Pyle tells him that he’s deeply in love with Phuong, the one thing Fowler believes the Vietnamese got right.
Yet one gets the sense that Fowler has been waiting for somebody like Pyle to come along (even after Pyle’s bold discussion of his feelings for Phuong, Fowler cannot help but like him), that Fowler is a man on probation about to get caught in the act. Phuong’s sister never misses a chance to tell Fowler that he’s no good for Phuong because he cannot marry her (his wife back in London refuses to grant him a divorce) and offer her a binding contract of love and social status.
The film opens with Fowler being asked to identify Pyle’s body, dead from a stab wound and found floating in the river. Fowler denies involvement, but it’s clear that he’s not an innocent; it’s no accident that the manner in which Pyle dies is a knife to the back, whether Fowler physically twisted it or not.
But what’s really at the heart of The Quiet American is a distinctly Greeneian turn of phrase spoken in Fowler’s opening voiceover as he talks about his feelings for Vietnam, an analogy blatantly drawn to Phuong: “The touch of a girl who might say she loves you.” It’s a line that encompasses the uncertainty and paranoia of relationships through the ages, and Caine speaks it with a deadened tone that suggests it was written especially for him. Embedded in the word choices of that phrase are a lifetime of longing and experience, and the central mystery of the movie itself.
The focus is not on what the CIA was up to 13 years before President Johnson would send troops to that country, but the single object of Fowler and Pyle’s dual affections. Phuong is an oblique character, perhaps because her accent obscures any potentially illuminating voice inflection, or because her beauty hides her desires. Or maybe it’s just that she has no preference, that she is an opportunist — but that’s unlikely, given that Noyce never misses an opportunity to favorably contrast her with her harpy sister. When Pyle professes his love, it seems impossible that she should reciprocate, and it seems equally impossible that her allegiance to her sister should be so strong as to allow her to leave Fowler in the wake of a lie.
If there’s a complaint to be voiced about The Quiet American, it’s that for all its deliberation it still moves too quickly. While it runs nearly two hours and its abbreviated feel accentuates the American ethos of impulsiveness and intrusiveness personified by Pyle, the film might have been better off had Pyle and Phuong’s relationship been delineated a bit more clearly.
But that’s small potatoes in view of Caine’s devastated performance and Noyce’s understanding of what makes his plot tick. The two breathe tortured life into the oldest triangle in the book.
Showing exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].