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
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
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.
~~ Jules Brenner