The Quiet American ( )
When Richard Burton died suddenly in August 1984 he was on the verge of a tremendous comeback.
Two films were planned. The first was Wild Geese II, a sequel to a spectacularly successful mercenary movie made six years earlier. The second was The Quiet American, a lavish adaptation of the classic novel by Graham Greene to be directed by Charles Sturridge, then still riding high on the success of TV’s Brideshead Revisited.
Burton would have played world-weary English journalist Thomas Fowler, and there are those who believe his work on his final film, 1984, pointed to him delivering a world-class performance in The Quiet American that could have netted him an Oscar after no fewer than seven nominations and no win.
Now, eighteen years later, the same talk surrounds a new version of the story and the performance given by Sir Michael Caine as Fowler. Could he be about to win the Academy Award that might once have been Burton’s?
The story of The Quiet American is told in flashback as Fowler tells of his friendship with gauche young American Alden Pyle, played by Brendan Fraser, after the young man’s death in 1950s Vietnam.
Pyle is a medical aid worker whose humanitarian nature jars with Fowler’s, the latter a flaccid, directionless journalist with no plans for the future other than to continue with his easy life and his relationship with his young Vietnamese lover.
Yet there is much more to Pyle than meets the eye. Fowler reports on the growing crisis in Vietnam for the London Press. Pyle is part of a medical aid group. As military atrocities mount against the civilian population Fowler is increasingly drawn into a world he has previously avoided, and comes to realise that his enigmatic new friend may be hiding a seriously dangerous agenda.
It is the girl who provides the core of the two men’s relationship. Fowler sees her merely as an appendage to his cosy life; Pyle, on the other hand, falls head over heels in love. Thus the love triangle begins.
Packed with familiar Greene themes such as cuckolding, the love triangle and Catholicism – all previously seen in pictures like The Third Man, The Honorary Consul and The End of the Affair – The Quiet American is that very rare animal: a movie with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Yet it sat on the shelf for more than a little while before its makers plucked up the courage to release it. In an age where movies’ worth are measured by the amount of special effects and stunts they boast, it cannot be easy to market something that is so resolutely old-fashioned in its construction.
Previously filmed in 1958 with Sir Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy, this new version comes from Philip (Dead Calm) Noyce and is a terrific return to traditional storytelling with a serious subject matter and powerful acting.
The always-impressive Fraser is excellent and underplays well as the young idealist but this is resolutely Caine’s film as he journeys from hard-boiled cynic to moral crusader.
Caine is actually too old to play Fowler but, since his return to quality fare over the last four years, he has thrown himself into a succession of interesting films including Little Voice, Last Orders, Quills and now this. The film looks fabulous and, as well as Caine, Fraser, Noyce and the film’s script and sumptuous cinematography could land Oscars.
In Caine’s case, the Best Actor gong would crown a half-century in films and provide the perfect present for his 70th birthday in March. After being overlooked three times for Alfie, Sleuth and Educating Rita, perhaps his time has arrived.