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Caine is able in quiet

The acting shines as does Graham Greene's suspenseful novel set in Vietnam in the early 1950s

Michael Caine once described the difference

between an actor and a star by saying a star looks at a script and thinks, 'How can I change this to suit myself?' An actor, he said, looks at a script and wonders, 'How can I change myself to suit this?'

As for himself, Caine has become one of the most welcome presences on screen by combining a star's magnetism with the sturdy reliability of the best character actors. He offers a natural blend of versatility and familiarity that can always be counted on, even if the rest of the film has you counting the minutes ('Jaws: The Revenge' anyone?).

In 'The Quiet American,' Caine and his material are beautifully suited to bring out the best in each other. As directed by the recently revitalized Phillip Noyce, this adaptation of Graham Greene's prophetic 1955 novel allows its star to fully inhabit a world of ambiguity in a way that we trust implicitly.

A dubious moral compass at best, British news correspondent Thomas Fowler (Caine) basks in the jaded near-decadence of inactivity offered by his posting in Saigon in the early '50s. He is content to drift through his routine, lulled by the city's sensuous embrace by day and welcomed nightly by the soothing affections of his young mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen).

But two arrivals will stir the ashes of this burnt-out case. One is a summons back to London, where little awaits him but the rigidly Catholic wife who will not divorce him. The other is Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a fresh-faced all-American boy who has come to run a medical aid program, and who falls in love with Phuong. Fowler will deal with the first by launching a hopefully important-seeming investigation of a massacre in the north. Dealing with Pyle is complicated by the shadowy figures with whom the innocent-seeming Yank may be dealing.

A 1958 Hollywood adaptation of 'The Quiet American' angered Greene by making the American the hero. The current film preserves the novel's threatening vision of American intervention in Vietnam, but never stridently and never at the expense of the story itself. This is above all a romantic thriller, a suspense story in which we actually feel something real at stake Ñ lives, certainly, but also nations and souls.

After doing workmanlike duty on two Harrison Ford-Tom Clancy thrillers and toiling laboriously on 'The Bone Collector,' Australian director Noyce has found here and in 'Rabbit-Proof Fence' projects in which to invest more than hired-hand professionalism. Intelligent and passionate, this 'American' breathes mystery, menace and sadness, stirring the emotions with growing force.

Caine, who wore Greene well in 1983's 'Beyond the Limit' (an otherwise ill-suited adaptation of 'The Honorary Consul'), effortlessly suggests the best and worst of what lurks beneath Fowler's resignation. The appealing Fraser, in a performance that might surprise anyone who hasn't seen him in 'Gods and Monsters,' makes something disturbing of the squared-away Pyle's sense of purpose.

And Yen's Phuong, who men want without ever really understanding, maintains a necessary and metaphoric sense of unknowability, the resident spirit of a world haunted by the future.