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Friday, February 7, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Caine is quietly electric in 'The Quiet American'

Movie review


***
"The Quiet American," with Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Hai Yen, Rade Sherbedgia. Directed by Phillip Noyce, from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, based on the novel by Graham Greene. 100 minutes. Rated R for images of violence and some language. Metro and Uptown.

Phillip Noyce's "The Quiet American" glides along exquisitely, like a boat in the indigo twilight of a Saigon river. Set in a 1950s Vietnam that is in turn dreamily nostalgic and hellishly violent, it's both a quiet little story about a love triangle and an eerily prescient metaphor for subsequent American involvement in Vietnam. You can watch it on either of those levels, or you can simply get caught in the moody, elegant lighting of Christopher Doyle's masterful cinematography (those boats on the river glow like pearls).

Noyce, whose equally lovely "Rabbit-Proof Fence" was released last month, has suddenly emerged from a string of big-budget Hollywood movies ("Clear and Present Danger," "The Saint," "The Bone Collector") as an artist on top of his game.

Graham Greene's 1955 novel (previously made into a movie in 1958) is both romance and thriller, thick with lush, humid atmosphere. Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is a British foreign correspondent comfortably settled in Vietnam, with a beautiful young mistress, Phuong (Do Hai Yen), and a devil-may-care attitude toward work. (In the movie, we see him enjoying a leisurely cup of tea outside the Continental Hotel at 11 a.m. — before visiting the office.) The novel and the movie are both told in flashbacks; we watch Fowler as he learns of the death of "the quiet American" — his friend and romantic rival Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) — and listen as he retells the story of their acquaintance.

Pyle, a young idealist from Boston — he wears his Red Sox cap in a North Vietnamese war zone — has an aw-shucks demeanor. In the country to help launch an economic-aid program, he's one of those Americans who are "causing a lot of trouble," as a French police inspector (Rade Sherbedgia) darkly notes. (Vietnam was then a French colony, though the country fought for independence in the north.) Fowler at first befriends the eager young man, then is dismayed when Pyle falls in love with Phuong. In a telling scene, Pyle compares Phuong to Vietnam itself — a beauty, yet the helpless mistress of an older European man.

It's a political story — and an uncannily timely one — yet the politics fade into the background in the wake of Caine's complex and splendid performance. He's a quiet Englishman, a contented man who eyes the lovely Phuong with a mixture of pride, condescension and mute adoration. "I just got her started on Bach," Fowler tells Pyle, retelling his own Pygmalion story as he flashes a quick, almost embarrassed smile. Fowler is no hero, yet the basic decency that Caine has made a hallmark of his career shines through his impassive face. To lose Phuong, he says with a quiet, aching sincerity, would be "the beginning of death."

The often-underrated Fraser contributes a deceptively simple, skillful characterization; he's perfectly cast, with his big American face looming above his broad shoulders. And Do Hai Yen does what she can with a role as reed-slim as she is; it's no easy trick playing a metaphor, but she has a lovely presence. As sentimental '50s cafe music plays in the nightclubs of Saigon, Caine's eyes meet hers from across the room, and it's electric, in a quiet way. So is this movie.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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