I was just watching Philip Noyce’s 2002 version Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American again, and was struck not only by the brilliance of Michael Caine’s performance — for which he was nominated, but did not win, an Academy Award for Best Actor, or a BAFTA, also for Best Actor, though he should have won both, I think — but also by Christopher Doyle’s delicate cinematography — Doyle most famously worked as the mesmeric, color-drenched DP for director Wong Kar-wai — and Brendan Fraser’s unusually nuanced performance.
It’s a film that succeeds on every level, from a deeply uneven director — and as Caine noted in interviews at the time, the first time the actor had to play a part younger than he actually was, which served as a sobering wake up call for him during the shoot. I’m also saddened to note that the film’s two executive producers, both excellent directors as well — Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella — are no longer with us, when clearly each had so much work left to do.
The Quiet American is a film about the loss of innocence, the ravages of age, the persistence of memory, and the fact that the present is continually becoming the past — we live only in this moment, and we are given no more. We have no certainty that what is in the present will extend into the future, and we have no assurance that what is in the past will help us in the present.
Michael Caine is deeply underappreciated; he gives so much in this performance, and with such economy and assurance that the screen seems to disappear, and we’re simply with him, in Vietnam in the 1950s, at the beginning of what would turn into the Vietnam war.
The Quiet American is also a film that really challenges the viewer, and in much more faithful to Graham Greene’s novel than the 1958 version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which starred Audie Murphy and Sir Michael Redgrave, but which excised the anti-war theme of Greene’s book almost entirely, as a result of the climate of fear that ruled American cinema during the era, the last days of the lingering HUAC Blacklist.
The 2002 version is in every way superior — fidelity to the source material, the performances, the cinematography and the direction — and brings back to life a vanished colonialist era in which no one could really see what was coming next, or if they could, were either powerless to stop it.
Film is so absolute ephemeral; as Val Lewton often observed, it’s like writing on water. The images remain as talismans of the cinematographic process, but the milieu in which they were created is completely evanescent, and vanishes as soon as the last shot is in the can. The film was made relatively recently — only about a decade ago — but can one imagine a film of such depth and ambition being made today, in the midst of the endless onslaught of one comic book movie after another?
I don’t think so, and it’s sad that both the BAFTAs and the Oscars missed the chance to reward Michael Caine for the performance of his career; this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment where all the creative elements of the film clicked, to create a work of resonance, depth and terrible beauty.
If you haven’t seen it, please do so at once.