The Fallen Idol Reviews
Ralph Richardson delivers a tense and spectacular portrayal of a butler for the French embassy in Britain who is suspected of murder. The film is shown from the perspective of the spoiled son of the French ambassador, and Carol Reed's filming-style makes it as if you are spectating on the drama as it unravels from the son's point of view; such as when the butler is referring to his mistress, he calls her his "niece" and then looks at the ground nervously. Graham Greene also should be given some credit for this too.
Both The Third Man and The Fallen Idol are written by famous author Graham Greene and they both share superb dialogue and a riveting storyline.
Carol Reed provides some great direction and camera angles, but it's nothing compared to The Third Man. I think the problem is that The Third Man just got so intense and visually magnificent as it came towards its climax, whereas this was semi-predictable and lacked suspense.
In the last thirty minutes or so Ralph Richardson started acting like Orson Welles in The Third Man; where he would seem as if he's hiding some immense secret or suppressing a violent rage, and as the film ended there was no official clarity to his anxiety.
The film's central character is the French ambassador's son, and it actually took me a while to realize he was the French ambassador's son; which explained his atrocious habit to slur every other word.
The Fallen Idol is nowhere near The Third Man, but it benefits from Graham Greene's crafty script and a strong lead from Ralph Richardson. 86/100
"Through a Child's Eye, Darkly"
The circumstances of our first encounters with movies are often as memorable as the movies themselves. Sometimes the juxtaposition of movie and circumstance seems merely accidental; but there are those films that change us enough that we can identify the first viewing as the precise moment when we became a different person. Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol (1948)-which I first saw on afternoon television, at an age close to that of the boy who is its protagonist-remains such a film for me, and I daresay for many who saw it at an appropriately early age. What it is like to see The Fallen Idol for the first time as an adult it is hard for me to imagine; seen in childhood, it was like a door swung ajar-whether deliberately or not-to reveal an adult world not yet suspected, and in the process to alter forever the self-awareness of the child spectator. To come back, years later, to the close-up of Bobby Henrey processing the overheard conversation of his beloved mentor, the butler Baines-"It makes no difference about the boy . . . Of course, he doesn't understand"-is like being privileged to relive, over and over, the moment of realizing how thoroughly adults, even the most loved, pursue their own agendas.
Part of the effect has to do with Henrey himself, whose manifest nonprofessionalism sets him curiously apart from the rest of the very polished proceedings-in a way that deepens the film's sense of missed connections. The film itself exemplifies the extraordinary craftsmanship of British cinema in the late forties, both behind the camera and in front of it. Even as a child, I could grasp that there was something extraordinary about the intricate surfaces created by Georges Périnal's cinematography and Vincent Korda's set designs and the sometimes harsh spareness of Graham Greene's dialogue and Carol Reed's direction. Ralph Richardson could make plausible the idea of Baines as irresistible idol because, in the fluid exactness of his gestures and line readings, he was, in fact, irresistible. The two women-Michèle Morgan, as the compassionate, suffering Julie, and Sonia Dresdel, as the terrifying and finally tragic Mrs. Baines-might have been competing deities of two different religions, overpowering images of Pity and Rage, respectively.
But in the midst of this world of adult splendor and mystery, Henrey-the boy Phile, through whose eyes we see most of what happens, and whose gaze, peering dreamily through the railings of a broad, winding staircase, is our point of entry into the film-is somehow just a kid. No actor, he has all the genuine awkwardness and inappropriateness of childhood: he talks too loud and at the wrong moment; he inserts himself in places where he shouldn't be; he fails to take hints and winces when he begins to get some sense of what he has been failing to understand. When he throws a scare into Baines by imitating the voice of the butler's dreaded wife, the effect is genuinely obnoxious. What saves his performance-that-isn't-a-performance from being as irritating to the audience as it is at moments to the characters in the film is the way Reed's direction acts for him. The whole cinematic apparatus is enlisted to convey what Phile sees and what spaces he moves through, in the process creating as close an impression of a child's perception as any film has managed.
He is, of course, not just any child, but the privileged son of a diplomat, inhabiting an embassy of palatial intricacy. We sense the privilege in his physical delicacy and in an arrogance that can be forgiven only because it is utterly unselfconscious. Privilege here quickly becomes indistinguishable from loneliness and silent suffering. Phile's father speaks to him like a stranger; his mother, we learn in the first few minutes, has been away for eight months, being treated for a serious illness; and the bored and unloved child has been given over to the care of a woman who, in her seemingly causeless malevolence, embodies every childhood fear. In a world of protocol and businesslike good cheer that would otherwise be a site for untroubled adventures, Mrs. Baines, unforgettably incarnated by the dark and piercing Dresdel, represents a meanness of spirit that cannot be skirted: "You know what happens to little boys who tell lies?"
She is the killjoy without whom the child's world would be a very pleasant place; at the same time, his growing awareness of her power to intimidate her husband brings out, if only in the joke of mimicking her in order to make Baines jump, a potential for cruelty in Phile, even if afterward he begins to feel ashamed: "I thought it would be funny." Mrs. Baines, it would seem, exists in order to educate Phile in the existence of evil, and his early retort to her-"I hate you"-has an effect as explosive as any physical violence. A state of war has been revealed, and Phile's movements are those of a soldier on a reconnaissance mission, as he darts around the labyrinth of the embassy to skirt her vigilance. The shadows and tilted angles turn the embassy into a place of hideouts and potential ambushes, in which Phile's principal occupation is to spy.
Everyone, in fact, spies on everyone. "What's torture?" Phile asks Julie at one point, and the whole film might be taken as a definition of torture at its most civilized. If Phile creeps about to avoid the all-seeing eye of Mrs. Baines, Baines and his girlfriend, Julie, likewise behave with Phile-when the boy surprises them in the dingy tea shop where they have taken refuge-as if they were squirming under his monitoring, watching their every word and coming up with bland cover stories to explain their behavior. The charming little boy has become someone who must be lied to, distracted, used as a prop for secret rendezvous; and there are moments when he begins to look quite odious, a little monster getting in the way of lovers desperate to be alone together.
In the solipsistic world of childhood, space exists in order for Phile to play in it, and adults exist to assist him in his play, giving him boxes for his pet snake or taking him to the zoo (to see the snakes, of course). If he stares out into their world, it is initially as if it were a spectacle provided for his enjoyment. But the longer and harder he stares, the more his situation becomes that of the child who has wandered by mistake into a movie for grown-ups: a half-understood drama about lovers having an assignation in a tea shop, or about an unhappily married man asking his wife for his "freedom"-whatever that might be. Small wonder, then, that as a nine-year-old watching The Fallen Idol on Channel 9, I began to feel as if I were watching a movie about myself watching The Fallen Idol: a perfect doubling of the spying game, whose constant twisting movements make the film a more insidious counterpart to Reed's The Third Man (1949).
Everyone, it was explained here, was a double agent, and everyone inevitably the object of others' surveillance. The shifting of viewpoints, from shot to shot or within the same shot, is what The Fallen Idol is made of; Graham Greene's vision of betrayal as central to human experience found its perfect corollary in Reed's characteristic tilted angles, which here serve as constant, sometimes brutal, reminders that someone else is watching or overhearing. A sense of dread permeates ordinary life; the slightest gesture or most innocuous object can trigger disastrous consequences. As Baines tells Phile when he returns a telltale pocket handkerchief, "It's things like that give secrets away"; and a few moments later, Phile will be trapped into giving away his most important secret, merely through using the wrong pronoun.
Like The Third Man, The Fallen Idol is a postwar movie in which war is shown to have no end: the battle continues in parlor and kitchen, and what begins in play ends in what to Phile will always look like murder. How could it be an accident, when it happened in an atmosphere of such unbridled murderousness? The death of Mrs. Baines seems like the inevitable culmination of all the lies and all the spying that turn out to be the very essence of the world that Phile, all unknowing, has inhabited; and the horrifying wicked stepmother ends not as perpetrator but victim. It is a mark of what Reed has accomplished here that a character presented from the outset as an emblem of malice acquires by the end a nearly tragic pathos. In becoming aware of the suffering that underlies her apparent wickedness, Phile enters the domain of a different kind of knowledge.
What he will make of that knowledge remains sealed. Reed softened the irremediable somberness of Greene's short story, in which the boy's betrayal of his idol poisons his whole life, to provide an ending at least potentially happy-the police, by substituting one misunderstanding for another, have averted the worst outcome, and Phile's mother has come home-but there is no telling what Phile will make of a world that he has just begun to see clearly, and with a new wariness. The spatial labyrinth of the embassy, in which so much of the movie has been enacted, gives way in the film's final moments to an unseen temporal labyrinth, the anticipation of how all these events will play back in the memory of an adult Phile, whose birth we have just witnessed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For awhile, 'The Fallen Idol" was part of the Criterion Collection but according to what I've read, the rights have now been acquired by Lionsgate. Be that as it may, any film that ends up as part of the Criterion Collection (even for a short while) is supposed to be considered a highly rated 'art' film, if not a 'masterpiece.' Certainly the film has things going for it including some wonderful noirish cinematography, Director Carol Reed's remarkable coaching job of a child actor, solid acting performances on the part of the adult actors and haunting on-location shots in 1948 London.
Despite the classy 'look' of the film, the screenplay itself is weak and as a result, I relegate the whole affair to the pantheon of 'B' melodrama. The weakest aspect of the film is obvious: the character of Mrs. Baines, who is just such a vapid, unlikeable martinet who would have been probably diagnosed as bipolar if she were alive today. And is Mr. Baines much better a character than the evil Mrs.? What exactly do we find out about the wily butler besides the back story that he killed a black man while he was living in Africa before working at the Embassy? As it turns out, that's just a tall tale Baines has made up to impress Phillipe. Otherwise, Baines spends most of his time trying to convince Phillipe to keep his mouth shut so that no one finds out about his affair with Julie, an Embassy employee who works in the steno pool.
I suppose it was very progressive of director Reed to hold up Baines and Julie as 'the good guys' despite the fact that they were having an affair (Reed himself was the product of an illegitimate union). But why should we hold them in such high esteem? Just because they're the victims of the unreasonable Mrs. Baines? I appreciate the fact that Baines wins points because he's kind to Phillipe but really that's all we know about him. And as far as Julie is concerned-to my mind, she's seems to be a complete empty vessel.
In watching the documentary about director Reed as part of the DVD 'supplement', we learn that he was master in extracting wonderful performances from the child actors he worked with during his long career. The case of Bobby Henrey who played Phillipe was no exception. Henrey reportedly could never sit still and eventually Reed had to hire a magician to perform tricks for the boy in order to keep his attention. Reed expertly brings out the child's confusion as he misunderstands the reason for Mrs. Baines' death which leads to Baines being placed in jeopardy (the child believes that Baines 'murdered' his wife after confusing that event with Baines' tall tale which initially the butler appeared to communicate as a 'murder' but later clarifying it as 'self defense').
The rest of "Fallen Idol" involves the rather stodgy police investigation into Mrs. Baines' death. Will the boy gum things up despite attempting to cover for the butler at every turn? Since he's just a kid, he's unable to cover up the discrepancies in Baines and Julies' story and after they're found out, Baines is on the verge of suicide. Fortunately an eagle eyed cop comes upon Mrs. Baines' footprint next to the window where she fell; this of course ends up exonerating the happy (or shall we say semi-happy) couple. I believe that the original ending from the book the film was based on, was Baines doing himself in, and some internet posters would prefer the more unpleasant denouement. I was actually pleased that the films' scenarists changed the ending to a happy one as the thought of having that child experience such an awful event as suicide would have ruined the picture for me.
If there is a moral in this story, it's probably 'always be honest' because Baines and Julies' decision not to tell the truth almost led to their arrest and complete downfall. Despite the fact they prevail in the end, I would have much preferred that Phillipe had a direct hand in saving them. As it turned out, it was pure coincidence that saved Baines from the hangman's noose and not little Phillipe who will only be remembered for not being able to keep his big mouth shut.
Like Hitchcock, The Fallen Idol is concerned with an innocent man being unjustly accused. Unlike Hitchcock, the characters of The Fallen Idol have little or no ambiguity. And when the protagonist is finally saved, it's not from his own exciting efforts or efforts on the part of a valuable ally (in this case, a nine year old boy) but from a slow-paced, pedestrian police investigation. Where was Hitchcock when you needed him?