Adapted from a novel by Graham Greene, The Quiet American is a moody, intelligent recreation of Vietnam (or, more properly, Indochina) during the last days of French colonialism. Both a mystery and a political thriller, it is held together by a romance, the competition between English journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) and American technician Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) for the affections of Phuong (Thi Hai Yen Do), a beautiful young Vietnamese.
The convoluted action to result from this mixed purpose is not helped by an equally complex flashback structure that begins with the death of Pyle, then works its way back to the start. By eliminating suspense, this approach makes it possible to focus on the competition between Pyle and Fowler, but then that struggle is muddied by dialog so sotto voce you often cannot understand what is being said. Caine in particular is almost incomprehensible at times.
On the up side, the characters’ tangled motivations result in sophisticated, difficult to deny adult moral ambiguities. Fowler’s desire to do right with Phuong, for example, is impossible because his wife (in England) refuses to give him a divorce. As a result of her relationship with Fowler, Phuong is viewed as little better than a prostitute by the locals and has no alternative marriage prospects. Similarly, Pyle’s friendship with Fowler and their mutual affection are real enough, but complicated by matters beyond their rivalry for Phuong.
That edginess is because their contest just sets the stage for larger political and historical issues, with often confusing results. When, for example, Fowler risks a journey to the war-torn north in search of a story, is Pyle’s unexpected presence coincidental? Later events suggest otherwise, but like much of the action, it is never entirely clear and the sequence overall seems pointless.
That kind of murkiness is all too often mistaken for mystery. In the most evocative sequence, for example, Fowler sits in an open-air cafe in central Saigon, just watching the world go by. It is not clear why he is there, but for a brief moment the film basks in the glow of everyday pleasures until a bomb destroys the languid lassitude. The surprising contrast to the lead up makes retrospective sense, but it is still unclear what happened or why and a later explanation does little to clarify matters.
I won’t spoil the central “mystery” but resolving it has a lot to do with why the action seems to jump around without ever settling down. As a consequence, aside from that bomb sequence, and despite the effort to drench the film in mood, the Vietnamese locations feel little better than backdrops and the lovingly recreated period atmosphere never quite convinces. It may be that The Quiet American tries to do and say too much. Not quite a mystery, political thriller, period film or romance, it provides pieces of a puzzle that never coalesce. Some of the fragments sparkle, but they cannot stand on their own.