Cinema Signal:

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

. "The Quiet American"

In a remake of Graham Greene's novel about the ugly image of Americans in French Indochina before the Vietnam war, director Phillip Noyce puts together a tale of considerable atmosphere. More importantly, he provides a vehicle for Michael Caine to showcase what we think is his best performance to date and can only surmise that there was something in this setting and its writing that inspired him to reach a deep level of emotional connection. You have only to listen to the quality of his voice in the opening narration to hear what we mean.

Thomas Fowler (Caine) is a reporter kept in Saigon by his London newspaper to feed the home readers all the developments in the ongoing guerrilla war of 1950s French Indochina. The story starts with a mystery -- the stabbing murder of an American. Inspector Vigot (Rade Serbedzija), knowing that Fowler was a friend of the victim and therefore a suspect, comes for an interview. Fowler's answers to Vigot's questions sets off his own rethinking the events concerning his experience with the dead man and of his own life in Saigon, which we experience in flashback.

Here in pre-fall Saigon, Fowler not only enjoys the comforts of his privileged position but is a man who has learned to exploit all the advantages of an englishman thriving in the political intrigues and seamy, steamy social milieu. Chief among his comforts, given his separation from a wife back home, is his relationship with one of Saigon's beauties, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a former taxi dancer, now his housekeeper and concubine.

Which is not to say he doesn't love her -- in fact he worships her -- but it's a relationship that Phuong's sister (Pham Thi Mai Hoa) has come to look upon as unseemly, given the disparity in age. Into this challenging situation, steps Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), the eventual murder victim, an American. Fowler describes Pyle to the detective as "quiet", representing himself as a medical researcher.

Pyle is introduced to Phuong and immediately is enamored. For some reason, perhaps the circumstances of Saigon's dangers and difficulties, feels the need to express his love of Fowler's woman to Fowler, with fair warning of his intention to win her for himself, setting up his blatant play for the woman.

As though to facilitate this process, Fowler's newspaper is calling him home. Fowler delays the inevitable by venturing to the out country during an attack by an opposition militia in order to provide a story. Pyle meets him there for a moment of stark war dangers from which the two return, emotionally entangled in an increasingly sticky triangle.

The script (by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan) as well as the production follow Greene's story for a moody re-creation of the troubled time and place, with its sudden life and death changes of destiny; its exotic settings and inhabitants; its pursuits of pleasure of the flesh and escapes into opium dreams. But it's Fowler's wrestle with sexual rivalry and the priorities of his existence that is the yarn of the tapestry and the crux of the story.

It harks back to a time that has had its flood of revelations and insights, making this feel like old stuff and high melodrama. But, that's primarily the setting. There's always room for the love triangle and for distinguished acting. If Caine won an award as Best Actor in a Suporting Role for "Cider House Rules", he should be considered for a nomination in this masterfully evocative performance.

Brendan Fraser escapes from his usual high camp to take on this rather dour role. While there's a certain spooky unnaturalness in it, we like the serious side of this promising actor.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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