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When his father goes abroad to retrieve his mother from a long hospital stay, Phillipe, the young son of a foreign ambassador in London, remains at the embassy in the care of the butler, Baines, and his shrewish housekeeper wife. Phillipe worships the butler, and the two have a close friendship. Unaware that Baines is having a secret romance with Julie, a young embassy worker, Phillipe lets the information slip to Mrs. Baines that he has seen them together. At the point of near madness, Mrs. Baines confronts her husband and later while spying on him, accidentally falls to her death. Phillipe, believing Baines has killed her, begins a series of lies to cover for his beloved friend that almost lands the butler in jail.

Director: Carol Reed
Producer: Carol Reed; Executive Producer: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Graham Greene (based on his story "The Basement Room"); Lesley Storm, William Templeton (additional dialogue)
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Editing: Oswald Hafenrichter
Set Design: Vincent Korda, James Sawyer
Original Music: William Alwyn
Cast: Ralph Richardson (Baines), Michèle Morgan (Julie), Sonia Dresdel (Mrs. Baines), Bobby Henrey (Phillipe), Denis O'Dea (Inspector Crowe), Jack Hawkins (Detective Ames).

Why THE FALLEN IDOL is Essential

Sir Carol Reed's reputation has not stood the test of time very well. For the last few decades he has been completely overshadowed by fellow English directors whose work has achieved greater lasting global fame, such as the sprawling epics of David Lean or the thrillers made by Alfred Hitchcock in Hollywood. The one Reed film that achieved the greatest success has been Oliver! (1968), winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Reed's only Best Director win. Even in his own country, he was recognized by the British film academy solely for this big budget musical. Yet beginning with his debut in the 1930s, he was acclaimed as a leading light of that nation's cinema, and in the late 1940s, after three highly revered films, he was the most respected of all his colleagues, the one critics and audiences followed with great interest and anticipation of his next project.

Among the trio of masterworks that cemented this reputation, the most famous is undoubtedly The Third Man (1949), although the presence of Orson Welles in the cast, as well as a superficial similarity to his directorial style, often lead people to the conclusion that this was, if not a Welles picture, at least one that was heavily influenced by him. One look at The Fallen Idol, however, reveals the fallacy of that impression. Reed's trademark skewed camera angles, deep focus, and chiaroscuro lighting were in evidence in the first of his much-praised trilogy of pictures, Odd Man Out (1947); in The Fallen Idol, they imbue the huge London mansion that serves as the film's main set with a sense of mystery and dread as well as an atmosphere of wonder and fun; it is a visual style that amplifies the perspective of a child trying to navigate the tense, shifting relationships of a confounding adult world. Reed and his visual team, notably cinematographer Georges Perinal and designers James Sawyer and Vincent Korda (also important contributors to the look of The Third Man) create an indelible physical and psychological space described by screenwriter Howard A. Rodman as "every bit as evocative as the gleaming cobblestones of Harry Lime's Vienna" in the later movie.

Reed's key collaborator here, of course, is author Graham Greene, whose source story, "The Basement Room," came to the attention of producer Alexander Korda, who must also be credited for bringing writer and director together and giving them the freedom--and funding--to work at the top of their form. Greene and Reed found in each other ideal creative partners, and this first of three projects together proved to be Greene's favorite and the most satisfying screen adaptation of his work. Ironically, the author considered his original story unfilmable because of its unhappy ending and a murder committed by the most sympathetic character. Reed and Greene altered the focus and meaning by turning the murder into an accidental death that sets in motion a well-intentioned but nearly disastrous attempt by the young boy at the center of the plot to save the family butler from incrimination. This shift resulted in an even richer story and set up the challenge of telling it all through the eyes not of an old man looking back ruefully on an incident from his youth, as in "The Basement Room," but that of a young boy trying very hard to understand the mysterious and complex world of the adults around him and play by rules he can only dimly interpret. The result is one of the cinema's most powerful portraits of lost innocence, rendering the return to "normalcy" at the end ambiguous and rather bittersweet.

The effectiveness of the child's viewpoint would be nothing without the right actor to convey all the shifting moods and innocent grasping for understanding that flow through the character of Phillipe, who is on screen almost every minute of the film. Reed got just what he needed from Bobby Henrey, a youngster with no experience and, by most accounts, no talent for acting, making the performance we see all the more remarkable. Of course, Ralph Richardson, one of Britain's three great actors of the period (the others being Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud), takes the top acting honors here for his subtle and achingly sensitive portrayal of the butler, a tender, conflicted, and rather weak man. But Henrey received the bulk of the notice upon the picture's release. What was not mentioned in the reviews was Reed's constant attention to the boy, an exacting and exhausting process of observation, instruction, and imitation that brought this very young non-professional to exactly the emotional and psychological notes the role required. It was an astonishingly skillful process that would prove very useful to Reed directing his large cast of children in Oliver! years later, and it all started with this superior film, a gem of the British cinema.

by Rob Nixon

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