Phil Noyce has been busy lately, directing and touring with Rabbit-Proof Fence and trying to get his previous film, The Quiet American, which was virtually complete before September 11, screened in the US. Many readers will be familiar with Graham Greene’s 1955 novel upon which playwrights Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan based their screenplay for Noyce’s film.
Greene spent time in Vietnam between 1952 and 1954 and later wrote a powerful and complex tale of political mystery, murder and romance which also laid bare the role of US-sponsored terrorism in the lead-up to American military intervention in Vietnam. Noyce needed a lot of persistence to make the film, least of which was getting the rights from Swede Staffan Ahrenberg and veteran director Sydney Pollack, both of whom assumed production roles on the film.
The Quiet American is the best Noyce film in years. Sixty-nine-year-old Sir Michael Caine puts in a towering performance as the jaded, opium-addled journalist Fowler. Brendan Fraser is adequate in his role as Pyle but the character is a phantom compared to the pivotal Fowler role. Newcomer Do Thi Hai Yen, who had to learn English for the role of Phuong, is wonderfully convincing as the graceful, elegant Vietnamese mistress, over whom both men fight. Christopher Doyle’s (Rabbit-Proof Fence) cinematography and Craig Armstrong’s music are evocative and transport us to the muggy nights, opium dens and encroaching battlefronts.
Noyce succeeds in letting the drama of the story unfold in a restrained but effective manner. The Quiet American consequently has a powerful resonance, critical to Greene’s story. This is not the first time The Quiet American has been translated to the screen. In 1958 Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) directed a version which infuriated Greene because it down-played the meddling of the US in the region’s affairs. Greene, of course, was under US surveillance from the 1950s until his death in 1991.
This is a must-see film, ever more prescient given the current talk of war. Let this film be a testament to Greene’s spirit and belief that the writer ought to be a bit of grit in the State machine.