The Fallen Idol

Dir: Carol Reed, 1948. Starring: Bobby Henrey, Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel. Drama.
The Fallen Idol

Though Carol Reed strangely won an Oscar for his direction of the forgettable Oliver (in the '60s they gave lots of awards to those bloated musicals), he is actually best remembered for his bona fide masterpiece, The Third Man, which he made almost twenty years earlier. Wrongly many uninformed pseudo film historians often try to give Orson Welles credit for the film, even though he only popped on to the set for a few days to film his towering supporting performance. Yes, the film does have a "Wellesian" vibe stylistically, but the real truth is in the two movies Reed made just before it. They prove that he was already moving in a sorta Noir-lite direction, first with the acclaimed Odd Man Out and then his other great film, The Fallen Idol. Though one might describe the latter as a “little gem” it carries much more depth and style than most of the British-made thrillers of the day and in the end it can just about stand as an equal to the more beloved The Third Man. Both films are also part of Reed’s trilogy of films written by the great English novelist Graham Greene. (The trio also includes the lesser known Our Man in Havana). And though Reed would have an up-and-down career over the years--with solid films like Trapeze, many misses and the over-rated Oliver--it was the mega-bomb Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando that really sank him reputation-wise (a film I actually adore, but I’m in the minority). But that one-two punch of The Fallen Idol and The Third Man will always solidify him as one of cinema’s greats.

For The Fallen Idol, Greene adapted the script from his own short story “The Basement Room” and it’s a really nifty one. As the son of the French Ambassador living in London, little eight-year-old Philippe (the very good kid actor Bobby Henrey, in the first of only two feature film credits) has the run of the big embassy as his parents are usually away. He is more or less raised by the butler and maid, Mr. and Mrs. Baines (Ralph Richardson and Sonia Dresdel). The rambunctious French kid is always getting scolded by the uptight and abusive Mrs. Baines but he utterly adores Mr. Baines and his ridiculous stories of past adventures in the wilds of Africa. One day Philippe follows Mr. Baines out of the house and stumbles on him in the midst of an emotional scene with another Embassy employee, the pretty French secretary Julie (Michèle Morgan). Since the whole film is through the boy’s eyes, he doesn’t fully understand the two are in the midst of a torrid affair, complete with the drama of one of them being married. Hoping to help his friend, Philippe becomes the center of secrets between the adults, eventually leading to a stormy fight between the married couple and an accident that leaves Mrs. Baines dead, with Philippe confusedly thinking Mr. Baines did it. Unfortunately, as the police investigate the accident all the secrets and lies between Philippe and Baines confuse the kid more, and as he tries to cover for Baines he only helps to make the police think Baines murdered his wife.

What could sound like a kiddie flick on paper (albeit children’s noir) is actually so much more suspenseful than the usual murder mix-up caper of the day. While there don’t seem to be high stakes for Philippe, actual betrayal of a friend proves to be the highest stake imaginable though his eyes and in the end that loss of innocence and disappointment in the one adult he could count on is as devastating a notion as any thing noir can devise in the adult world. For the great Shakespearian actor Richardson, Baines may be his signature film role, although he got well-deserved Supporting Actor Oscar nominations, first the following year for The Heiress and much later for Graystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, two more underrated flicks. While many of his contemporaries--even ones with matinee idol looks like Laurence Olivier--always had an icy reserve about them, Richardson here, in Graystoke and even in Doctor Zhivago is at his best when revealing a heart underneath the bluster. Richardson’s performance as Baines really is a little marvel of complications and compartmentalization. He’s a proper butler, but also a working class chap. He’s a father figure but also an adulterer. He didn’t want to kill his wife, but he’s probably happy she’s dead. And he plays off a little French kid with minimal experience. While The Fallen Idol is a triumph for Richardson as well as Reed, it’s also a perfect introduction to the thrillers of the period for a kid. It’s no kiddie flick, but perhaps a young person can relate to the tension more than a cynical adult. And maybe that was the point.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 11, 2016 12:49pm
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