Monday, March 04, 2013

Films of Michael Caine: The Quiet American

Cast: Michael Caine (Thomas Fowler), Brendan Fraser (Alden Pyle), Do Thi Hai Yen (Phuong), Rade Serbedzija (Inspector Vigot), Tzi Ma (Hinh), Robert Stanton (Joe Tunney), Holmes Osborne (Bill Granger), Quang Hai (General Thé), Ferdinand Hoang (Mr Muoi), Pham Thi Mai Hoa (Phuong’s Sister), Mathias Mlekuz (French Captain).
Crew: Phillip Noyce (director), Staffan Ahrenberg and William Horberg (producers), Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan (writers), Craig Armstrong (music), Christopher Doyle, Huu Tuan Nguyen and Dat Quang (cinematography), John Scott (editor), Roger Ford (production designer).

Synopsis: Thomas Fowler is a British journalist for The Times newspaper based in Saigon, Vietnam, during the early 1950s. The French Army was fighting a war against Communists. Fowler has a young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong. The reporter meets Alden Pyle, an American who says he is part of the medical team with an economic aid mission in Vietnam. The Times summons Fowler back to its London office, but the correspondent asks for more time, claiming he is working on a big story. Pyle meets Phuong and falls in love with her. Fowler goes into the country and visits a town where the people have been massacred. Pyle turns up, claiming to be on a medical mission. He believes a third force must take over Vietnam from the French, to save the country from Communism. A new political party emerges, led by the self-appointed General Thé. Fowler writes to his Catholic wife in England, asking for a divorce. The reporter tries to interview Thé, asking if the general’s men had any involvement with the massacre. Pyle is at the general’s camp and protects the journalist.

Fowler’s wife writes back, refusing a divorce. He lies to Phuong about the letter but she discovers the truth and leaves him for Pyle. A terrorist bombing in central Saigon kills dozens of civilians, including women and children. Fowler sees Pyle in the aftermath, speaking fluent Vietnamese. The correspondent realises Pyle works for the CIA. Fowler confronts the American about his part in the bombing, but Pyle is unrepentant. He admits arming Thé but says such massacres will guarantee more American funding and ultimately save lives. Fowler realises Pyle is behind both atrocities. The reporter betrays Pyle to the Communists, who murder the American. Fowler persuades Phuong to resume being his mistress. Fowler stays on as The Times’ correspondent as events escalate into the Vietnam War…


Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American was first published in 1955, inspired by his time spent as a newspaper correspondent in Vietnam. Director Joseph L Mankiewicz shot the first adaptation of the book in 1958, with Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy. Greene was infuriated by the film, which downplayed the book’s anti-CIA stance. He wrote a vitriolic article accusing Mankiewicz of using the movie as a weapon to murder an author.

Four decades later Australian director Phillip Noyce finally got the go-ahead for a new version of The Quiet American, after five years’ preparation. Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan wrote the adaptation, Hampton having previously scripted another Greene adaptation, The Honorary Consul (1983). The crucial part of British journalist Thomas Fowler went to Caine, on a roll following his Oscar win as best supporting actor for The Cider House Rules (1999). ‘When they offered the part to me,’ the actor told the Australian edition of Empire, ‘I thought it was Christmas. How many roles are there for men of my age with that emotional range?’

Caine finished filming Quicksand (2002) early in 2001 and began preparing for his new role. The actor would turn 68 during the production but was going to be playing a 55-year-old. ‘I lost 25 pounds, dyed my hair and had four pounds of make-up on,’ he told The Age newspaper in 2003, ‘and I tried to suck my stomach in on the wide shots.’ The actor removed carbohydrates from his diet and walked five miles a day to shed the weight.

Caine partly based his performance on Greene. ‘I didn’t know him very well,’ he told a BBC cinema website, ‘but I knew a great deal about him. One of my best friends is Bryan Forbes, who was one of Graham’s best friends. So I knew a lot by proxy. I just copied something of the way he [Green] spoke, and his movements. They were very small.’ The actor also spent time with a journalist in Vietnam, observing what the reporter did and was advised on how to play an opium user by an addict.

Production of the $30 million picture began in Vietnam during February 2001 and continued for three months. Location shooting took place at Ho Chi Minh City, the ancient port town of Hoi An, in the northern province Ninh Binh and at the capital Hanoi. Studio work was lensed in Sydney, Australia. Caine told the Hollywood Reporter he was surprised at how welcoming the people of Vietnam had been and how beautiful the country was. ‘I expected to see a war-torn land, and I saw no sign of war at all. It was fabulous for me … to be in actual places where he [Greene] was. People pointed at windows saying, “That window in the Continental Hotel, that’s the room where he wrote The Quiet American.” This part was the maximum degree of difficulty because it’s so subtle; I put my heat and soul into it. At the end of that picture, when we got back to England, I sat in the armchair looking at my wife, and I said, “I’ve got nothing left here.”

The film got its first screening as a rough-cut in New York on September 10, 2001. The next day terrorists attacked America, flying two jumbo jets into the twin towers of World Trade Centre in New York and killing thousands of people. Another plane was crashed into the Pentagon at Washington, DC. Overnight a film with award-winning potential turned into the movie nobody wanted. American and British distribution rights had been acquired by Miramax for $5.5 million. Co-chairman Harvey Weinstein later told the New York Times what happened next: ‘I showed the film to some people and staff, and they said, “Are you out of your mind? You can’t release this now, it’s unpatriotic.”’

Miramax considered dumping the movie and began shopping it around to other distributors. Meanwhile Noyce continued working on the film’s post-production, with computer generated imagery used to make modern Vietnamese cities resemble their 1950s counterparts. Weinstein reportedly ordered the toning down of a scene in which a character accused America of adventurism. The final cut of The Quiet American was delivered to Miramax in May 2002.

Word leaked out that the distributors planned to release the film in January 2003, too late for Oscar consideration and a month when lesser movies are dumped in cinemas. Caine lobbied Weinstein for the film’s release to be brought forward. He even threatened to do no promotional work for his starring role in another movie to which Miramax held US distribution rights, The Actors (2003). Caine’s cause was supported by Noyce, Australian actress Nicole Kidman and two Oscar-winning executive producers attached to The Quiet American, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack. But Weinstein was still reluctant to distribute a film critical of American intervention in foreign countries, especially with the US Government preparing to go to war with Iraq.

Miramax eventually relented and agreed to give the picture its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2002. Caine told the American Press Association (AP) he gave Weinstein a promise: ‘If it doesn’t go well in Toronto, I’ll bring a shovel and help you bury it.’ Noyce used guerrilla tactics to create a buzz for The Quiet American before the festival, organising special screenings for key American film critics. The Toronto screening got a standing ovation and raves in US media, with several reviewers calling Caine’s performance a certainty for Oscar nomination. Miramax gave the picture a two-week run in a handful of US cinemas so it qualified for consideration at the Oscars.

Caine campaigned relentlessly on behalf of the film, earning himself nominations for best actor at the Golden Globes (losing to Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt), the BAFTAs and the Oscars (losing both to Adrien Brody in The Pianist). Caine won awards from film critics in London and San Francisco. ‘This has made my day,’ Caine told AP after hearing of his Oscar nomination. ‘I am absolutely delighted, I couldn’t be happier. It’s been a long, long journey. I just wanted to see whether I could get a nomination. And I’ve got one, I’m happy now and my work is done.’

The Quiet American reached Britain in November 2002. The 15-rated film got strong reviews, especially for Caine’s performance, and grossed nearly $3 million. In America the R-rated picture went into wider release after the Oscar nominations were announced in February 2003. It had grossed more than $12 million when this book went to press. Globally the picture had taken more than $22 million. A DVD and video release was expected in the UK and US before the end of 2003.

Caine told many interviewers he considered his performance in The Quiet American as the best of his long career. ‘There are moments in everyone’s life when everything comes together,’ he told the Dallas Fort Worth Star Telegram in 2003. ‘That’s what happened here. I was experienced enough an actor. I was experienced enough a man. I wanted to do something that I could really disappear into the character … rather than have a little of Michael Caine in there, like a movie star thing. I believe in this movie probably more than any other movie I’ve ever done.’

Reviews: ‘This may in fact be the best performance of Michael Caine’s career.’ – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
‘A career-capping performance by Michael Caine. One of the year’s most thoughtful films.’ – Time

Verdict: Does The Quiet American live up to all the hype? Surprisingly, yes – but don’t expect a sweeping epic or some grand blockbuster. Noyce’s film is subtle and intelligent, holding back from the sort of bombast that normally wins awards and critical kudos. The picture submerges you in the atmosphere of 1950s Vietnam, all too aware of the cost of imperialist attitudes. The global crisis that threatened to sink this picture also made its subject matter more relevant. It remains to be seen whether this version of The Quiet American will retain its power once the current political climate has changed. But time will not diminish Caine’s performance in this film, arguable the finest of his career. It’s a masterclass of nuance and restraint, many emotions played out just in his eyes. Even in a poor film, the performance would be worth watching. In this context it’s essential viewing.

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