Roads to Hell


“Life swarms with innocent monsters,” Charles Baudelaire famously observed in The Spleen of Paris—and, although none could be considered a horror film, so do this week’s three movies.

Directed by Phillip Noyce from Graham Greene’s 1955 novel (previously filmed in 1958), The Quiet American gives innocence a specifically political—and, as its title suggests, national—dimension. The movie is set in colonial Indochina, less than two years before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The war is ongoing, but the main battle is the one being waged between the comfortably cynical British foreign correspondent Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) and a gung ho young American do-gooder, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), for possession of Fowler’s pliant Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen, who had a secondary role in Tran Anh Hung’s The Vertical Ray of the Sun).

As imagined by Noyce (and played by Fraser with a brash absence of depth that enhances the subtlety of Caine’s performance), Pyle personifies the law of unintended consequences. This brush-cut George of the Jungle plows through the movie on some obscure humanitarian mission like an American president, with a baseball cap and a pet dog in tow. (“You call him ‘Duke’?” the Englishman dryly inquires.) Fools rush in. Much is made of the ardent American’s clumsy attempt to lead when, after dinner with Fowler and Phuong, he essays a dance with the lady. The competition for Phuong is nothing less than an allegorical struggle for the soul of Vietnam—or the leadership of the Free World. It seems that, in addition to pursuing Fowler’s girl, the big, naive idealist is quietly supporting the rogue Vietnamese general Thé as a “third force” between the Communist insurgents and the French colonials.

The Quiet American—which was shelved by distributor Miramax in the aftermath of 9-11 and evidently revived by the excellent reviews Caine’s affecting, nuanced performance received a year later at the Toronto Film Festival—is the latest incarnation of a text already rich with history. Greene based his novel on his own experiences as a journalist in Indochina. The book incorporates a number of actual people and events—including Thé and the terrorist car-bombing the general orchestrated in central Saigon in 1952. The eponymous American was apparently modeled upon CIA wunderkind Edward G. Lansdale, the instrument for U.S. involvement in the post-colonial South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.

In Greene’s unkind formulation, “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” Widely characterized as anti-American, his novel occasioned no small outrage in the U.S. (The ensuing exchange between the urbane, still-leftish liberal Philip Rahv and the more agitated, nascent neo-con Diana Trilling in the letter pages of Commentary has a remarkably contemporary feel.) The Quiet American was nonetheless a bestseller—the cover of my late-’50s paperback edition advises that, although “many Americans will not agree with this book . . . all of us ought to read it because it is what a very large part of the world really thinks of us”—and it was even adapted for the screen by big-time Hollywood writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Seen today, this first version of The Quiet American (shot, like the remake, on location in Saigon) is an unusually serious, not to mention wordy, affair. One might even call it a corrective. Mankiewicz—who consulted with Lansdale on his script, dedicated the movie to Diem, and told reporters he decried “the anti-Americanism and the Communist footsie-ism which is loose in the world”—reversed Greene’s logic: Pyle, played by World War II hero Audie Murphy, really was innocent. This political expedience did not, however, improve the movie’s commercial chances, or its reviews. In a minor historical irony, The Quiet American‘s greatest critical champion was the young Jean-Luc Godard, who, sounding like one of the villains in his recent In Praise of Love, complimented The Quiet American in Cahiers du Cinéma for improving on Greene, and placed the movie atop his 10-best list for 1958. (Could Godard have so admired Mankiewicz’s adaptation a decade later, when events rehabilitated Greene’s novel as an essential point of reference for Vietnam war correspondents?)

“What a fantastic film Aldrich—not to mention Welles—would have made from this fine script,” Godard wrote. Noyce’s Quiet American isn’t quite that film. Still, old-fashioned in its pungent, smoky atmospherics, the remake—which was shot by Christopher Doyle—has a good deal more action, romantic and otherwise, than the earlier movie. It’s also more coherent, despite several abrupt transitions that hint that the running time might once have been longer than its current 100 minutes.

Caine’s reflective performance sets a tone for the movie. The coda to the action is not a genuflection to Diem but a montage of headlines bringing the America-in-Vietnam story up to our year of escalation, 1965. In short, this new Quiet American is not only true to Greene’s novel—it has the effect of making the novel itself seem truer than it has ever been.

The quiet Americans in Abel Ferrara’s ‘R Xmas are an attractive pair of hardworking, upwardly mobile Caribbean immigrants who wholesale crack to maintain their posh Park Avenue pad and young daughter’s enrollment in an expensive Manhattan private school.

The couple, Sopranos regular Drea de Matteo and Lillo Brancato Jr., identified in the credits only as the Wife and the Husband, are first glimpsed through a soft flurry of New York Christmas-ness—attending the Daughter’s school pageant, taking her for a carriage ride through Central Park and then to visit Santa at an FAO Schwarz-like toy emporium where, in a prescient bit of business, two mothers fight over the store’s last Party Girl doll. The Husband also makes an unsuccessful bid to secure this coveted item for his daughter by discreetly waving a fistful of hundreds in the face of an unimpressed salesclerk. Then, it’s uptown to an apartment factory where the Wife and the Husband carefully package a shipment of crack envelopes, still complaining about the Party Girl doll.

Process is very important—‘R Xmas has an observational verité quality accentuated by being nearly half in untranslated Spanish—and, naturally, violence seems imminent. The tension is defused by Ferrara’s impressionistic montage and dreamy dissolves only to erupt with the sudden, nearly absurd, appearance of the splenetic Kidnapper, played by Ice-T. His whining, posturing negotiations with the Wife make for one of the more compelling two-handers of the season. Indeed, ‘R Xmas, which is receiving a simultaneous theatrical and video release, is a bona fide contribution to the holiday spirit. It’s also Ferrara’s strongest and most touching movie of recent years, not least when the sweet-faced Husband wonders what he’ll do on “career day” at the Daughter’s school.

Like any self-respecting Ferrara film, ‘R Xmas has its intimations of hellfire, yet it’s a weirdly benign Christmas fable—something like Miracle on 134th Street. (There’s even a final, perversely Capra-esque fete.) The director even historicizes his notion of damnation. As with Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, New York disorder is locked into a specific period. The opening title locates this not-quite-joking riff on the idea of family values during the last days of the Dinkins administration.

Talk to Her, the Pedro Almodóvar film that closed this year’s New York Film Festival, is—like its precursor, All About My Mother—another one of the Spanish filmmaker’s mature explorations of love and death and the whole damned thing. Events begin in a theater, with Marco (Darío Grandinetti) moved to tears by a ponderous dance to histrionic angst. I assumed Almodóvar was having a bit of fun parodying Pina Bausch—but the piece is Bausch’s Café Müller, and Almodóvar is nothing if not serious in telegraphing his seriousness.

The movie’s tony prelude is of a piece with its tasteful tastelessness, its Architectural Digest locations, and the designer stubble on Marco’s chin. Easily the most fabulous and fetishized creature in the movie is Lydia (singer Rosario Flores), the female matador who is the object of Marco’s affection. A great-looking dame with a trail of dark ringlets and a correspondingly long nose, she is injured (in a beautifully pulled-together sequence) in the bullring and winds up in the hospital, next to pretty Alicia (Leonor Watling), who has been in a coma for four years.

The innocent monster in this world is Benigno (Javier Cámara), the seemingly gay male nurse tending Alicia so lovingly that they might almost be a couple—and, in a sense, they are. Despite the bad-boy insert of a memorable silent-movie analogue to The Incredible Shrinking Man, initial strangeness inexorably gives way to rote sentimentality and mystical tenderness becomes narrative expedience, as we lurch toward the closure of another terrible, or at least, terribly shot, Bausch presentation—possibly a dance to the miracle of life.