Saturday, February 22, 2003

the quiet american: every cynic has an innocence to lose and every innocent is capable of terrible harm

Philip Noyce's version of The Quiet American beats the Mankiewicz 1958 version by 2 minutes and makes up for the original version's biggest faux pas, altering the ending of the book, thus diluting (and even perhaps destroying) the cynicism of Greene's novel. Philip Noyce shot two films back to back: this one and Rabbit Proof Fence, both finally out in the theatres, a week apart. Betrayal seems to be a key theme in Greene's novels (I haven't read any Greene, but all the adaptations I've seen -- The Third Man, The End of the Affair and this movie -- seem to support this observation). The film opens from the point of view (as we later understand) of Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine making another consummate performance seem effortless), a correspondent for the London Times stationed in '50s Saigon during the protracted French Indochina War, as we hear him talk about Vietnam. The next thing we see is the dead body of Alden Pyle (Fraser). The film then moves to a flashback, allowing us to understand how Fowler and Pyle met and the events that culminated in Pyle's death. The subdued uninvolved but very British brevity of Fowler's narration presages his admission of his role in Vietnam: "I don't get involved ... I just report what I see". The arrival of Alden Pyle (Fraser), the quiet american of the title, an idealistic enthusiastic American aid worker, threatens to change that. It also adds tension to Fowler's relationship with his young Vietnamese mistress Phuong. The inevitable love triangle is set up, but marked by Pyle respectfully deferring to Fowler in all fair play, only to receive Fowler's cynicism and underplayed vitriol. The military violence serves as an unfortunate backdrop to the conflict. The irony of the title is soon evident in manifold.

The murky marshy and disillusioned beauty of Saigon faithfully augments the themes of Greene's compact novel: the smudged line that often separates loyalty and rivalry in friendships, the bewildering complexity of romantic love, the insecurities wrought by encroaching old age and both the value and the blind treachery of political idealism {reference}. The stunning cinematography and the wonderful brooding score of Craig Armstrong (which features the cimbalom) serve Noyce's vision well. Brendan Fraser, despite his commercial fare easily dismissable as fluff, proves once again (as he did in Gods and Monsters) that he is great support for eloquent actors (Caine in this film, Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters). And the film goes into my list of "effective uses of the F-word" for its solitary usage of it {last entry: Far From Heaven}

The film was planned for release in the autumn of 2001. It was shelved after 9/11 when Miramax president Harvey Weinstein decided that the time was not right to point out the United States was capable of heinous terrorist acts of its own. The film languished for a year before Caine bullied Weinstein to relent, winning it a screening at the Toronto Film Festival. The response to the screening prompted Miramax to release the movie in time for consideration for the Oscars. This new release, ironically, appears at the eve of another dubious war, making the film more topical than anyone working on it would have imagined.

I have a quibble with the film. The use of a flashback is problematic. Unfortunately, this means we know how the love triangle is going to be resolved, and which character will die. This serves the allegories of the film, but the dramatic and romantic tension is diminished. That, however, does not discount this being a compelling tale of life, love, jealousy and betrayal.

Extract from Arthur Clough (1819-61)'s Dipsychus used in the film:

I drive through the street, and I care not a damn

The people they stare, and they ask who I am

And if I should chance to run over a cad

I can pay for the damage, if ever so bad


Noyce's 'American' finally realized

review of Greene's novel

Pox Americana

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