Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.
I do not understand the career of Brendan Fraser. This is going to sound strange, but the career that I’m most reminded of is that of Hilary Swank. Swank has two Oscars, but seems just as much at home in absolute cinematic garbage like The Core and The Reaping. Fraser is probably best known for The Mummy and its sequel, fun and entertaining action films, but he’s had his share of films like Furry Vengeance and Dudley Do-Right. And yet, every now and then, he has a prominent role in a film like Gods and Monsters or The Quiet American. While Michael Caine is arguably the star of The Quiet American, it is Fraser playing the title role. How the hell do you switch gears between an adaptation of a Graham Greene novel and Monkeybone?
The Quiet American takes place in Vietnam at the very start of the war, before serious American involvement. In fact, based on the newspaper headlines we see at the end (and this is not a spoiler), this takes place before the French pull out of Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. British journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is in Saigon, reporting on the beginnings of the war. Despite having a wife back in London, Thomas lives with Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), who is more or less a kept woman. This presents a problem for Phuong eventually. Thomas is unable to marry her and because of her relationship with him, no Vietnamese man will have her when he leaves.
Enter Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who claims to be an aid worker for an American agency. In truth, Alden is a CIA agent attempting to steer the Vietnam conflict in a direction more favorable to the Americans. His particular take on the situation involves the theories of foreign policy wonk York Harding, who believes that in such conflicts, the winning side will likely be a third force. In Vietnam, at least in Alden Pyle’s view, the colonial French don’t have the brains or power to win and the communists can’t be allowed to win. Therefore, the only real way forward is a third army. And, soon enough, a third army emerges under the leadership of General The (Quang Hai).
All of this might be interesting, but a little sterile. To liven things up, we need some additional romance in the mix, and it’s going to be obvious where this comes from. Alden, upon first seeing Phuong, falls for her and makes a play for her. She is relatively loyal to Thomas but knows his situation and knows that his Catholic wife will almost certainly not divorce him. When he claims falsely that she will and Phuong discovers the lie, she leaves with Alden, who throws himself into his work, both in tracking down who is supplying General The with his materiel and in figuring out exactly what Alden Pyle actually does, since he seems to appear everywhere there is even a minor insurgency.
The interesting thing about The Quiet American is that it shares an opening with Double Indemnity in many ways. The movie opens with the body of Alden Pyle being fished out of a river, so it’s not a question of what is going to happen to him at the end of the film. Instead, it’s all about how he got there. Unlike Double Indemnity, though, this film is narrated by a living character in Thomas Fowler.
Before I discuss Michael Caine’s nominated performance, I feel like I need to spend a little time on Brendan Fraser. Fraser seems like a likable enough actor. Aside from the two Mummy films that I’ve seen, I don’t tend to think of him as anyone’s go-to actor for anything, but he’s serviceable in most cases. Here, I can’t determine if he is terribly miscast or a near-perfect choice. He doesn’t seem to fit into his skin in The Quiet American, but that’s entirely in keeping with a man living a double or possibly triple life. He’s oddly bland, both conspicuous in every scene and yet oddly blending into the background in many of them. It’s worth noting, though, that in this film, Fraser dies ugly. If it weren’t a man dying, the performance here would almost be comic.
Caine, of course, is Caine. Even in a terrible movie, he’s pretty watchable, and The Quiet American is not a terrible movie. There is a sense of deep fatalism that Caine brings to the character of Thomas Fowler that is very much in keeping with the heavy religious undertones and Catholicism of Graham Greene. Fowler’s relationship with Phuong feels doomed to him because it is in so many ways, and yet he appears to be just as fated to be drawn to her.
It’s the story that I like most of all here, though. It focuses perhaps too much on the interplay between Thomas and Alden and treats Phuong more like a possession than I am comfortable with. That’s a function of when the story was written and when it takes place, but there is very much a vibe that Phuong is a possession that is traded between these two men. In fact, the only Vietnamese person who seems to have much in the way of agency is Thomas’s assistant Hinh (Tzi Ma, who is underknown and underrated).
Still, I do love Graham Greene. I’m not sure if this is based on his intense Catholicism or despite it, but it’s true. His characters are compelling, and the story takes place both on the world level and very much on the personal.
Why to watch The Quiet American: Any chance to watch anything touched by Graham Greene should be taken.
Why not to watch: Brendan Fraser’s “I’m dying” face.