Oscar Blindspots: The Quiet American

It might be 20 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 2002 through the month of November

Despite being ripe with cinematic potential, Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American is a flatly shot and uninspired adaptation of the classic novel, albeit with a stellar lead performance from Michael Caine.

In 1952 Saigon, Vietnam, Thomas Fowler (Oscar-nominated Caine) lives a quiet life as a British journalist reporting on the First Indochina War between the Vietnamese and the French. Thomas lives with Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a beautiful local girl. American medic Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) arrives ostensibly to provide medical care for the area, but befriends Thomas along the way.

Tensions rise as Pyle falls in love with Phuong. Thomas, still married to a strict Catholic in Britain, cannot marry Phuong, leading to tension between the two. As the country boils with war between the Communist factions, the French, and new forces, identities become tangled with political and romantic interests.

The pre-Vietnam War setting lends plenty of winks and nods to the United States eventual involvement in the country. Even the presence of Pyle as a character has tinges of how two-faced American involvement in foreign affairs would get. The central love triangle mirrors the British and American attitudes towards the country. Pyle has opinions and wants to fight Communism, while Thomas desires to stay neutral but still enjoy the spoils the country has to offer.

Caine balances the narrative with a steady hand. As an actor, this is the point of his career where he no longer can pull off the suave leading man, but still has glimpses of that persona. He deploys that persona perfectly here. He is a man who wants to be the charming man of intrigue, but his age and lack of mystery does him no favors. Caine understands exactly where Thomas is in life and delivers a great performance.

Fraser has the more difficult role. Pyle is a cypher that is difficult to decode. He seems gentle and unassuming, but his work is obviously more than meets the eye. The role requires a level of deception and Fraser fits that role well. The big problem is Yen. She is supposed to be this stunningly beautiful enchantress who neither men could ever dream of being apart from, yet she has zero personality. She is defined by the men around her and bends to the will of others. Yen is beautiful, but she gives absolutely nothing to the role.

Noyce never maintains a visual style. Sometimes, the film has a noir quality, while other times it maintains a Lynchian intimacy. The lack of cohesion between styles never lets the film settle into a rhythm. However interesting the dynamic between Fraser and Caine gets, the camera (and the script) keeps it at an arms length.

Caine and Fraser are both fully committed to the roles, but The Quiet American wastes their efforts. Focusing on white faces in a non-white setting detaches the setting from the story, ultimately rendering the film hollow.

Next week: One of the most commercially successful foreign action films is still considered underrated with Zhang Yimou’s Hero

1992 Oscar Blindspots
Review: Decision to Leave

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