After the murder of 'quiet American' Alden Pyle in 1950s Saigon, British newspaper man Thomas Fowler reminisces on their friendship, their rivalry over Fowler's Vietnamese mistress, and the tension between them when Pyle’s shadowy political connections come to the fore.
Sliver, The Saint, The Bone Collector' even with a couple of Jack Ryan hits to his credit (Patriot Games, Clear And Present Danger), Phillip Noyce's career in the 1990s wasn't exactly a shining beacon in the Hollywood wilderness. And yet, here he is, delivering two very different, politically sensitive movies into UK cinemas in a single month.
While Rabbit-Proof Fence pricks the consciences of Noyce's fellow Australians by bringing a shameful episode in that country's history to light, The Quiet American raises questions about America's covert foreign policy in 1950s Vietnam.
The suggestion that the American government's meddling in Vietnamese politics - allegedly using the CIA to install a Washington-friendly military dictatorship - led indirectly to the Vietnam War is not one that's likely to go down well across the Atlantic in the current post-9/11, pre-Iraq Attack atmosphere. Hence Miramax's reluctance to give it more than a tiny US release in December to qualify it for Oscar consideration.
But Oscar nominations it richly deserves, not least for Michael Caine, whose performance as an English reporter goaded out of his comfortable, opium-clouded, ex-pat lifestyle ranks among the very best of his career. Caine brings dry wit and tragic self-knowledge to his character, while Brendan Fraser, as the love-struck Pyle, trades on his charismatic screen presence.
Actually, for the majority of the movie, the focus falls more on the love triangle than any anti-American political dimension. However, as in Graham Greene's source novel, this story element itself captures a sense of history passing the empirical baton from Britain (the rumpled Fowler) to America (the clean-cut Pyle). Noyce's film restores several of the essential qualities of Greene's book that were ironed out of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1958 adaptation.
Most impressive is the manner in which the director evokes time and place, both in the locations settings and through the characters' attitudes to a young Vietnamese girl they both want to 'protect' (read: 'possess').
Politically topical, but Caine alone makes it worth seeing.
Reviewed by Alan Morrison