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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), Michle 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
The Fallen Idol (1948)
The Fallen Idol featured an early example of product placement; in the scene where Phillipe, Baines, and Julie leave the tea shop, there is a truck in the background delivering Watneys beer. The press book sent to exhibitors upon the film's release suggested using that brief moment to get hotels and restaurants to insert Watneys-furnished menu cards touting the movie and to get off-licenses (liquor stores) to do movie-themed window displays.
The press book for The Fallen Idol also included several suggestions for promotions, such as a photo contest featuring five-to-eight-year olds ("Britain's bonny and sturdy children") inspired by a portrait of Bobby Henrey as an "example of beautiful childhood." The book also suggested tying in with the National Savings Movement (established during World War I, similar to investing in U.S. Savings Bonds), again using a picture of the child actor, citing his role as one who experiences disappointment and disillusionment in the film. "Your children need have no fears for their future--their safeguard always--National Savings." Disappointment also figured into another promotional suggestion, a letter or postcard competition in conjunction with local newspapers in which people would write in about their biggest childhood disappointments.
The film, or perhaps more accurately Graham Greene's story "The Basement Room," on which it was based, may have influenced L.P. Hartley's 1953 novel The Go-Between. That novel is also told from the point of view of a nostalgic and emotionally diminished older man looking back on his childhood forays into a complicated world of adult sexual and social intrigue. Hartley's book was made into a film in 1970 and an opera in 1991.
In his review of The Fallen Idol during its 2006 screening in New York, Village Voice critic J. Hoberman noted various Hitchcock suspense elements and pointed out how the "mysterious interaction" Phil witnesses between Baines and Julie at the embassy early in the story "anticipates the strategies of Rear Window (1954)."
English novelist and critic David Lodge, writing program notes for the Criterion Collection DVD release of the film, suggests Greene may have been influenced by Henry James's novel What Maisie Knew, "which describes a series of interlocking adulterous affairs, divorces, and remarriages from the point of view of a sensitive but only dimly comprehending child." James was a favorite author of Graham Greene.
Bobby Henrey's mother published a book about their experiences during the film's production called A Film Star in Belgrave Square.
Baines's comment about his tea, "the cup that cheers," is from the old temperance slogan promoting tea drinking over alcohol, "The cup that cheers but does not inebriate."
During the investigation into Mrs. Baines's death, the doctor asks Phillipe, "Who do you think you are, Nick Carter?" The reference is to the pulp fiction detective who first appeared in print in 1886. Walter Pidgeon played him in the mystery movie Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939), which was later turned into a popular radio series (1943-1955).
by Rob Nixon
The Fallen Idol (1948)
Director Carol Reed was the illegitimate son of famed British actor-impresario Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who dominated the British stage in the Edwardian Era. Reed was fascinated by his larger-than-life father and determined to follow him into show business, a desire Tree encouraged. He used to allow the boy to watch him rehearse and to stand in the wings during performances. Years later, Reed would call on some of the actors he met in these childhood experiences to be character players in his movies.
Reed started out as an actor before working behind the camera. After a stint as a dialogue director at Ealing Studios, he made his feature debut with Midshipman Easy (1935).
Author Graham Greene, two years older than Reed, began reviewing films for the Spectator in 1935, the same year Reed made his directing debut. Greene was well impressed with Reed's filmmaking skills, saying he thought he had "more sense of the cinema than most veteran British directors." Over the next few years, Greene gave Reed a number of glowing reviews for his "fine film and literary intelligence."
Reed's experience with young Bobby Henrey and his skill in directing the boy in The Fallen Idol paid off well years later when he made the musical Oliver! (1968), based on Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. It was to be Reed's only Best Director Academy Award. The film also won Best Picture. Reed never won a British Academy Award (BAFTA), and Oliver! was his only nomination in his own country.
After The Fallen Idol, Bobby Henrey reportedly signed a lucrative contract with producer Alexander Korda to make four more films before 1952. He made only one, the comedy Wonder Boy (1951), before retiring from acting at the age of 11. He worked as a tax consultant for most of his adult life while also pursuing studies toward the ministry. After retiring from his financial career, he became an interfaith chaplain at a Greenwich, Connecticut, hospital.
Ralph Richardson made several acclaimed film appearances, including his Oscar®-nominated roles in The Heiress (1949) and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), but his first love always remained the theater. He once said, "I find I cannot increase my talent by working in pictures any more than a painter can do so by increasing the size of his brush."
While this picture was in production, it was announced that Reed's next project would be in Hollywood, a film based on the play Portrait in Black to star Joan Crawford. The project never happened. Portrait in Black was eventually made in 1960, starring Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn.
As production on The Fallen Idol was drawing to a close, Korda mentioned to Greene that he thought a great film could be made in the bombed out ruins of postwar Vienna. Greene knew just the story, one he had already begun to think about after scribbling the first paragraph on the back of a napkin: "I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand." The story would become The Third Man (1949), the most famous of the collaborations undertaken by Korda, Greene, and Reed.
Leading lady Michle Morgan was already a big star in her native France when she was cast in The Fallen Idol, having appeared in such major productions as Marcel Carn's Quai des Brumes (1938) and La Symphonie Pastorale (1946). She had also appeared in a few Hollywood films, including Joan of Paris (1942) and Passage to Marseille (1944). Morgan received top billing for The Fallen Idol on many posters and lobby cards but second billing in the on-screen credits, after Ralph Richardson. Morgan continued to act through the late 1990s. She also became an author and the designer of a line of neckties.
Jack Hawkins, who played Detective Ames, became one of England's most popular stars of the 1950s and 1960s and a frequent player in big international productions, including Howard Hawks's Land of the Pharaohs (1955), Ben-Hur (1959), Zulu (1964), and David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Bobby Henrey's mother, Madeleine, was hired at the last moment to play his mother in the film's final scene.
Dandy Nichols, who played one of the cleaning women, Mrs. Patterson, was a longtime stage actress and later the star of Til Death Us Do Part, the comedy television series that was adapted in the U.S. as All in the Family.
Georges Perinal had a distinguished career in his native France, England, and occasionally Hollywood. He was the cinematographer on Ren Clair's Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), and Nous la Libert (1931); Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1932); No Highway in the Sky (1951) and Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1957). In addition to frequent work with Korda, including The Four Feathers (1939), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, he was also in demand in the U.K. for his great facility with color, a skill much appreciated by director Michael Powell on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and the Korda-produced The Thief of Bagdad (1940), which brought Perinal an Oscar® for Best Color Cinematography.
The press book for The Fallen Idol that was sent to exhibitors upon the film's release suggested several tag lines to promote it: "Graham Greene's story of an eventful weekend;" "Stately triangle melodrama;" "Unusual and intriguing sex melodrama;" and the rather disturbing "Bobby Henrey...the child discovery of the age--may he never grow."
Even before the release of The Fallen Idol, and despite efforts to keep Bobby Henrey's name out of the press and to ban reporters on set when he was present, reports started leaking that the boy's performance, under Carol Reed's expert handling, was exceptional. Critic Dilys Powell wrote, "[Reed's] admirers have waited for The Fallen Idol with an eagerness for which impatience is too soft a word."
Author Graham Greene never liked the title The Fallen Idol, calling it "meaningless...for the original story, and even for the film it always reminded me of the problem paintings of John Collier." Handling its American release, David O. Selznick considered retitling the film "The Eye Witness" but finally settled on "The Lost Illusion," the working title during production. Some sources list this as the U.S. release title, but it's debatable how widely it was used, since Bosley Crowther's New York Times review of 1949, following its opening in New York, called it The Fallen Idol.
The U.S. release of The Fallen Idol was delayed until November 1949 because of demands from American censors to cut bits of dialogue. Reed, who had previously tangled with Joseph I. Breen over Odd Man Out (1947), was determined that any needed cuts be done by him in London, in order to preserve the integrity of Greene's dialogue and the actors' performances, but he knew that the picture's distribution in the States depended on compromising to an extent. Breen particularly wanted two things cut: any suggestion that Rose was a prostitute, and the scene of Julie being interrogated in the bedroom that indicated she and Baines had been in bed together. The chief censor also objected to Rose's line to the boy, "I know your daddy," implying the ambassador might have contracted her "services" at some point. Pushed by Selznick to get the problems resolved and The Fallen Idol into theaters quickly, plus banking on the American censor's unfamiliarity with nuances of British speech, Reed made minimal cuts and released the film to great acclaim from U.S. reviewers. The few pieces that were eliminated were restored in the film's American re-release many years later.
"Heartiest congrats on your brilliant directorial job on Fallen Idol. You know how many years I have been a fan of yours and of your work but it has now reached a new high." - producer and American distributor David O. Selznick, 1948
"The Fallen Idol is my favourite screen work because it is more a writer's film than a director's. The Third Man, although it was more popular because of the song, "The Third Man Theme," is mostly action with only sketched characters. It was fun doing, but there is more of the writer in The Fallen Idol." - Graham Greene, quoted in Graham Greene: Man of Paradox, edited by A.F. Cassis (Loyola Press, 1994)
Memorable Quotes from THE FALLEN IDOL
MRS. BAINES (Sonia Dresdel): You know what happens to little boys who tell lies.
MRS. BAINES: Lying again, Master Phillipe?
BAINES (Ralph Richardson): There's lies and lies.
MRS. BAINES: What do you mean by that?
BAINES: Some lies are just kindness.
PHILLIPE (Bobby Henrey): I hate you.
MRS. BAINES: Master Phillipe, say you're sorry for that.
PHILLIPE: I'm not sorry.
PHILLIPE: What kind of man is he?
JULIE (Michle Morgan): Good. Kind. Couldn't hurt anyone.
BAINES: What a fool the man is.
PHILLIPE: That's what I think, too.
PHILLIPE: You can trust me, Baines.
BAINES: Mrs. Baines will get it out of you if she can.
PHILLIPE: Oh, I'll never let you down, Baines. Funny, isn't it? Julie working at the embassy and all this time she was your niece.
BAINES: Yes, it's a scream.
MRS. BAINES: You want your freedom?
BAINES: You don't want me around anymore.
MRS. BAINES: You're not such a child as you pretend to be. You've got a nasty, wicked mind and it ought to be beaten out of you.
POLICE SERGEANT (George Woodbridge): Does your father work at the embassy?
PHILLIPE: No, he's the ambassador.
ROSE, THE STREET WALKER (Dora Bryan): Oh, I know your daddy!
INSPECTOR CROWE (Dennis O'Dea): Why did the boy ask you if it was in self-defense as in Africa?
BAINES: I've never been out of the country. Except once, to Oostende.
PHILLIPE: We've got to think of lies and tell them all the time and then they won't find out the truth.
BAINES: There are faults on both sides, Phil. We don't have any call to judge. Perhaps she was what she was because I am what I am. We have to be very careful, Phil, because we make one another.
PHILLIPE: I thought God made us.
BAINES: The trouble is, we take a hand in the game.
INSPECTOR CROWE: Shall I tell you a secret?
Compiled by Rob Nixon
The Fallen Idol (1948)
Author Graham Greene had a professional relationship with producer Alexander Korda prior to working on this project. As a critic for The Spectator, the writer had taken many of Korda's films to task. So when Korda contacted him for a meeting not long after Greene's negative review of Rembrandt (1936), Greene assumed it was Korda's intention to confront his "enemy." Instead, Korda asked him if he had any story ideas suitable for film. Greene began to improvise a plot and within a half hour, he had been commissioned to further develop the idea into what eventually became The Green Cockatoo (1937). Greene was also one of the writers (along with director Basil Dean) on the Vivien Leigh-Laurence Olivier movie produced by Korda, 21 Days Together (1940).In 1946, Korda made several moves to expand his film empire in Great Britain, resurrecting the old London Film Productions and buying controlling interest in both British Lion Film Corporation (giving him a distribution arm) and Shepperton and Worton Hall studios (providing substantial production facilities). He was interested in bringing Carol Reed into his new ventures. Reed had built a reputation as one of the finest young British directors in the years leading up to World War II, and following the war achieved international acclaim with his drama about an Irish nationalist on the lam, Odd Man Out (1947). Reed was eager to leave his previous studios, Two Cities and the Rank Organization, after disagreements over budget and final cut of Odd Man Out. Reed would find in Korda a producer willing to handle financial matters to his satisfaction while at the same time offering encouragement to create films of exceptional quality. Joining forces with Korda would give Reed a higher degree of security and independence than he had ever known.
Shortly after Reed signed on in 1947, he suggested to Korda England Made Me by Graham Greene as a potential film project. The idea got Korda thinking back to a Greene piece he read years before. He gave Reed a copy of the short story "The Basement Room," and retired to bed to nurse a bad cold. The story is told in a flashback by the aged Phillipe Lane, thinking back to his hero worship, at the age of seven, of his family's butler Baines. Left alone with Baines and his housekeeper wife in the family's Belgravia mansion, Phillipe becomes caught up in deception and suspicion between the married couple over Baines's relationship with his "niece" Emmy, in reality his secret mistress. Phillipe witnesses a struggle between Mr. & Mrs. Baines at the top of the stairs that results in her fatal fall. He also sees Baines move the body to make it appear an accident. Reed thought the story was a wonderful starting point for a film and went in to see Korda on his sick bed to tell him so. Korda picked up the phone, made a quick call to see if the story was available, and arranged a meeting between Reed and Greene for the following day.
Greene was surprised anyone wanted to make a film of his story. He had conceived it primarily to relieve the boredom of a ship's passage from Liberia to London many years earlier and thought it to be unfilmable. "A murder committed by the most sympathetic character and an unhappy ending...would certainly have imperiled the 250,000 that films nowadays cost." But he admired Reed and liked working with Korda, so the two set about to adapt the tale.
Graham Greene: "In the conferences that ensued, the story was quietly changed, so that the subject no longer concerned a small boy who unwittingly betrayed his best friend to the police but dealt instead with a small boy who believed that his friend was a murderer and nearly procured his arrest by telling lies in his defence. I think this, especially with Reed's handling, was a good subject."
Greene was particularly delighted with the extent of collaboration he was offered by Reed, quite different from what he had experienced on previous films. For his part, the director felt that it was his job "to convey faithfully what the author had in mind." The two developed a system in which they worked in a suite of rooms in a Brighton hotel with interconnecting doors and a secretary in the room between them. Greene wrote, then Reed revised and made suggestions, then Greene made revisions and further suggestions. In Reed's recollection, the script was finished in ten days, but several sources say it took considerably longer.
Several changes were made to the original story, largely for greater clarity and interest on screen, and Greene, who had not been convinced of the worthiness of the story as movie material anyway, gladly went along with the alterations Reed suggested. Both men felt the large Belgravia house was a bit dated and that it was not good form--not to mention unrealistic--to show a wealthy family in such an enormous house with a staff of servants in post-war austerity England. The setting was changed to the London embassy of a foreign country (although never made explicit, from the language spoken by several characters, it had to be France). Emmy, the girl with whom Baines carried on an affair, was changed to Julie and made an employee of the embassy. The greatest change was shifting the details of Mrs. Baines's death. In the new version, Baines is not present when she has her fatal fall, but his struggle with her just moments before leads the boy to believe his friend killed her, setting in motion the lies the boy tells to help Baines cover up the "truth," which only served to put the butler in more jeopardy. This allowed Reed to expand what was just a couple of pages at the end of the original story--Baines's downfall at the hands of the police inspector--into a Hitchcockian scene of suspense and offbeat humor as a cadre of police, doctors, and embassy staff buzz around the building trying to figure out what happened while Phillipe confuses the issue with his deceptions.
Each man contributed significant new details to the story. Greene added the bit in which Julie is questioned standing next to the bed she had shared with Baines. He also added the boy's pet snake MacGregor, which Reed initially opposed. Reed threw in the bit where an embassy staffer interrupts the investigation by insisting on his one duty, to keep the building's clocks wound.
Another change made from the original story was turning Rose from a sullen policewoman to a warm-hearted, cheerful prostitute who offers the boy motherly comfort after he's found wandering the streets at night.
Korda made one story suggestion for The Fallen Idol --changing Baines from butler to chauffeur because, he reasoned, children love to see the insides of cars and make heroes out of chauffeurs. And this, he said, would allow them to start the film with the boy and the chauffeur seeing the boy's father off at the airport in the film's first scene. Greene and Reed thought that starting a picture at an airport was a terrible clich, so the idea was quickly dismissed.
The Fallen Idol was given a generous 400,000 budget by Korda.
by Rob Nixon
The Fallen Idol (1948)
Director Carol Reed wanted Ralph Richardson for the butler role. Richardson was already a stage actor of high reputation with a couple dozen pictures under his belt since his first screen appearance in 1933. He had most recently received highly favorable critical notices for his turn as the cold and vengeful Karenin in Anna Karenina (1948) opposite Vivien Leigh. And most conveniently, he was under contract to Korda.
Reed wanted French star Michle Morgan for the part of Julie. Korda offered her the job on one of his trips to Hollywood, where she had been living and working during the war.
The part of Mrs. Baines went to the distinguished stage and Shakespearian actress Sonia Dresdel, who had done only two prior movies.
With the major adult roles cast, Reed and company now turned to the crucial task of finding a young boy to play the lead role of Phillipe. They found the face they were looking for on the cover of a book, A Village in Piccadilly, part of a trilogy about the lives of French refugees from Nazism who had settled in London. The author, Robert Henrey, and his wife were two such people, along with their eight-year-old son Bobby, whose picture graced the cover. London Films production executive Bill O'Bryen contacted the Henreys to set up a screen test with Ralph Richardson. Madeleine Henrey, the mother, was reluctant, fearing the experience would spoil her son, but her husband thought it might be good character-building for him. She agreed it was a possibility but only if she could be present on set at all times and personally supervise him. Bobby was flown in for the test by Korda from Normandy, where he was visiting his grandmother.
Although the boy had no experience at all, Reed was delighted with his test and felt that he could work well with him. Bobby was smart and had a hint of a French accent, which fit very well with the role. He was also an only child, which meant he could get on well in the company of adults. The only problem Reed saw was that the boy had a black nail from using a hammer. Reed told Mrs. Henrey to not let the boy play with hammers, but to also encourage him to keep his accent and, above all, to not grow any bigger until shooting was completed. A governess was appointed to look after the child actor.
Bobby Henrey received 1,000 for his part in The Fallen Idol with the stipulation that if it were not completed in ten weeks, he would get an additional 100 per week.
Shooting took place at Shepperton Studios, which Korda had recently purchased, and on location at a large house at 13 Belgrave Square owned by the British Red Cross and St. John medical organization, who were pleased to have the company paint the exterior and fix all the windows. Other locations used for The Fallen Idol were in the same neighborhood, except for scenes shot at the London Zoo.
Graham Greene was not present on the film set during production. Two writers, Lesley Storm and William Templeton, were hired for additional dialogue where necessary.
For cinematography, Reed hired Georges Perinal, a favorite of Korda after his work on The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Rembrandt (1936), and the sci-fi fantasy Things to Come (1936), all Korda productions. Perinal frequently became impatient with Reed's insistence on shots that the cinematographer thought impossible to get, although in the end he always acceded to the director's demands. The result is some stunning photography, such as the sequence of Bobby running through the streets of London at night and the hide-and-seek game in the embassy.
Reed worked closely with his sound crew to pay particular attention to what was heard on screen. They were able to keep closely to the boy's point of view by muffling some of what the adults said, as if barely overheard (hence, misinterpreted) by the child.
In the book she wrote about the experience of filming The Fallen Idol, Madeleine Henrey noted Carol Reed's "infinite patience" with her son, adding, "[Reed's] authority was tremendous. Nobody ever questioned what Carol said, but there was no blowing through a megaphone or shouting angry words. Probably his strength was due in part to the fact that he was such an adept at hiding it." Assistant director Guy Hamilton later echoed the thought, saying Reed, in his own understated way, kept "absolute control of everybody."
The biggest challenge, of course, was getting such an amazing central performance out of Bobby Henrey, who had no experience or much acting ability yet was on screen almost the entire picture. Assistant director Guy Hamilton noted that the boy "couldn't act his way out of a paper bag" and had "the attention span of a demented flea." He also remarked that things got more difficult when Bobby got bored after 12-14 weeks of shooting.
Bobby Henrey, as an adult, could offer no explanation for his highly praised performance except to say he remembered it only as a magical experience.
The key to getting a performance from the boy was the remarkable relationship between the young actor and his director. Reed welcomed the challenge, knowing that if he worked well with Bobby he would get something not always easily achieved with an adult actor, the sense of uninhibited connection with a role, without any self-consciousness. "But with the right sort of child such as Bobby, there is nothing in the way," Reed said. "There is absolutely no resistance. He will do everything you tell him."
Reed constantly watched the boy, noting how he moved, how he stood or sat, how he listened to adults, what he did with his hands. He then adjusted every scene to incorporate the boy's natural actions and reactions. Reed would also take in whatever the boy did, show Bobby how to do the scene by imitating it, then Bobby would imitate Reed mimicking him. When asked how he could sob so heartbreakingly when his pet snake died, Bobby responded rather indignantly, "Well, he showed me. What's the producer for?"
Reed used all kinds of tricks to get the results he wanted. In the opening scene, when Phillipe is supposed to be looking over the banister at Baines with affection and interest, Reed had a magician perform for Bobby off camera to get the facial expression he needed.
An article about the making of The Fallen Idol by Frances Levinson described the working relationship between the two: "Carol Reed crouched beside the child hour after hour, month after month. He created a separate world for himself and the child, and the vast superstructures of the cinema, the lights, cameras, actors, and technicians, were shut out."
Between constantly observing and coaching the boy and all his other directorial duties, Reed ended up working 16 hours a day and talking so much he developed laryngitis.
Because the boy was not used to working with other actors, Reed had to shoot him primarily in reaction shots. He also had to keep his dialogue down to small bits, so the film was planned to be very cut heavy. In its 95-minute running time there are more than 1,000 edits.
In order to protect the boy from the adult themes and plot points, including adultery and violent death, most of the story was kept from him. Initially, Reed just had Bobby do the basic actions needed for each scene. Gradually, he told him more and more about what was happening, and halfway through, Bobby was given the script to read.
In scenes showing the boy in close-up next to Baines, whose face is not visible in the shot, the man walking or standing beside him is actually Reed himself.
For continuity's sake over the course of a long shoot, Reed restricted Bobby's access to the cake trolley during tea breaks on set so he wouldn't gain weight. Continuity was also the issue in Reed's only disagreement with Madeleine Henrey. A scene with Bobby running up the stairs was left half-completed at the end of the week's shooting on a Friday evening. Over the weekend, Madeleine decided the boy needed a haircut, and when he returned to the set on Monday, it was impossible to match the remaining shots they needed to the ones taken a few days before. The makeup department tried attaching hair pieces to him, but it didn't look right. Reed was furious and had no choice but to rearrange the shooting schedule to complete the stair scene after Bobby's hair grew out. "It's the most expensive haircut in the world!" Reed groused. "Thousands of pounds! That's what it will cost!" The incident was the only delay in an otherwise smooth shoot, which ended up completing on schedule.
by Rob Nixon
The Fallen Idol (1948)
Carol Reed's reputation has long been overshadowed by fellow British directors David Lean, Michael Powell, and (of course) Alfred Hitchcock, but during the late 1940s, at the peak of his career, Reed was the most respected and revered of British directors and acknowledged as an accomplished craftsmen of the cinema. The Fallen Idol (1948) was one of the films that cemented his reputation and many critics rate the beautifully modulated drama-turned-intimate thriller, directed by Reed with a deft touch and a rich sense of character, as his finest film.
From the opening shot of The Fallen Idol, we see the world through the eyes of a young boy on the verge of adolescence. Phillipe (Bobby Henrey, a non-actor in his screen debut) is the son of the French Ambassador to England and lives in the ambassadorial mansion in London. From the living quarters on the second floor, he can be found peering through the banister down into the grand entry room below, a space where public and private life converge and a stage where the adult world plays out for his not quite comprehending eyes and ears. The staff below bustles about to prepare for the ambassador's absence over the weekend, oblivious to Phillipe above except for the efficient and thoroughly professional butler Baines (Ralph Richardson), who always makes time for a friendly wink and a conspiratorial glance up to Phillipe. The boy adores Baines, who regales him with grand adventure stories from his time in darkest Africa, and looks forward to his weekend with Baines while his parents are away. Baines dotes on the boy who is otherwise friendless in residence. Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) is another matter, an authoritarian housekeeper who acts like a strict, disciplinarian headmistress around Phillipe. He quite understandably keeps his pet snake, MacGregor, hidden from Mrs. Baines, and the warm, accepting Baines conspires to keep Phillipe's secret and keep the harmless snake safe from his wife, with whom relations are visibly strained and formal.
Phillipe is unwittingly drawn into the secret world of adults, so often played out at a far remove like an abstract shadow play, when he discovers Baines in a tea shop with a younger woman, Julie (Michle Morgan), a typist on the ambassador's staff. Baines asks the boy to keep their meeting a secret. Mrs. Baines manages to wheedle it out of the boy and asks him to keep her discovery a secret. Taken into their respective confidences, Phillipe feels like a conspirator and, worse, a betrayer, and becomes eaten away with guilt when the situation becomes more complicated and events take a harrowing turn.
The Fallen Idol was Reed's first collaboration with producer Alexander Korda, who lured Reed from Rank (where he had just made the acclaimed IRA-themed thriller Odd Man Out, 1947) to his London Film Productions with the promise of bigger budgets and a free hand. It was also Korda who suggested Graham Greene's 1935 short story, "The Basement Room," about an innocent young boy drawn into the lies and schemes of the players in an affair, a murder and a cover-up, and arranged a meeting between Greene and Reed. "It seemed to me that the subject matter was unfilmable a murder committed by the most sympathetic character and an unhappy ending," recalled Greene later. As an author, Greene had not found himself well served by the screen adaptations of his work, but as a film critic he had given exemplary notices to Reed's work and he agreed to write the screenplay.
In close collaboration with Reed, Greene expanded and reworked the original story. He turned the murder into an accidental death which the boy only sees in glimpses and fragments. Convinced he's witnessed his best friend commit murder, he's wracked with fear but beholden by loyalty, and he unwittingly imperils his friend as he lies to cover up the deed. Reed suggested turning the pre-war British mansion of the story into the residence of the French ambassador in London, which not only explains the opulence of a lavish household with servants in post-war England but also sets it apart from the outside world even more literally it's technically foreign soil. Phillipe is spelled in the French fashion but always pronounced as the British "Philip" by the butler Baines and the rest of the staff. Greene added the snake, MacGregor, which is a marvelous, boyish touch and suggests a touch of symbolism: there is a snake in the mansion that is this boy's Eden, but it isn't MacGregor. It was a happy collaboration and a fortuitous partnership for both of them: Greene found in Reed a sensitive and savvy collaborator who understood the essentials of a good story and the art of writing for the screen, and the two worked together on two subsequent occasions: Greene wrote The Third Man (1949) and adapted his comic thriller Our Man in Havana (1959) for Reed. The Fallen Idol remained his favorite of his films.
Alexander Korda also brought two other essential collaborators to the film. His brother, the gifted art director Vincent Korda, designed the tremendous central set of the ambassadorial mansion. Cinematographer Georges Perinal photographed Korda's first great success, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), as well as Korda's Rembrandt (1936) and The Four Feathers (1939), and brought his crisp photography, exacting lighting and handsome imagery to the film. Together they create a tremendous cinematic space for the drama to play out. A game of hide and seek with Phillipe, Baines and Julie abounds with innocent delight, but the otherwise empty mansion feels like a haunted house as Phillipe scurries under furniture covered in sheets that, in the dark space and musty atmosphere, look like shrouds. Dramatically cant angles add to the tension. Phillipe's dash through nighttime London, startled by what he thinks has been a murder, is even more dramatic, a world of shadowy streets lit by reflections on wet cobblestone that anticipates the continental noir atmosphere of The Third Man.
Ralph Richardson was Reed's first choice to play Baines and he delivers one of the most nuanced and powerful performances of his career as the avuncular butler who is not quite the hero the boy believes, yet is a good, if flawed, man. The French actress Michele Morgan was brought over from Hollywood to play Julie and Sonia Dresdel played the hard, angry Mrs. Baines. For the central role of Phillipe, Reed did not want an established child actor but a fresh face, and it was Bobby Henrey's face that first attracted Reed's attention. It was on the cover of a book written by his father, who had fled France for England during the war. Henrey was raised in London and spoke flawless schoolboy British with just a hint of a French accent, which was perfect for the role. Reed lavished attention on Henrey, who was not a trained actor and was bored and easily distracted through much of the shooting. He observed the child and acted out the scenes for him to mimic. "It was my business to make him do on screen what he did, without knowing it, in real life," Reed explained in an interview. In close-ups, he played opposite Henrey. In some scenes when Richardson's face was not visible, he even took the actor's place. The screen performance he sculpted out of the boy's mimicry and reactions is vivid and alive, one of the great child performances of the screen.
The Fallen Idol was censored upon its original American release; scenes that made clear the affair between Baines and Julie and some of the saucier bits involving a cockney prostitute in the police station were cut by the Breen office (all those snips have since been restored). Even slightly cut, the film was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay (for Graham Greene) at the Academy Awards, and Reed won the Best Director award from the New York Film Critics Circle and "Best British Film" at the BAFTA Awards. It remains one of the great films of innocence lost and a powerful portrait of the powerlessness of children in the adult world, where they are so often ignored or discounted. All of the players, from devoted but flawed Baines to his conniving wife to the officious police detectives, are so caught up in their own dramas that they have no idea of the turmoil churning within the heart and mind of this little boy. A happy ending brings a return to normalcy, but the final shots remind us that nothing will ever be the same for Phillipe.
Producer: Carol Reed
Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Graham Greene (screenplay and story); Lesley Storm, William Templeton (additional dialogue)
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Music: William Alwyn
Film Editing: Oswald Hafenrichter
Cast: Ralph Richardson (Baines), Michele Morgan (Julie), Sonia Dresdel (Mrs. Baines), Bobby Henrey (Phillipe), Denis O'Dea (Inspector Crowe), Jack Hawkins (Detective Ames), Walter Fitzgerald (Dr. Fenton), Dandy Nichols (Mrs. Patterson), Joan Young (Mrs. Barrow), Karel Stepanek (First Secretary), Gerard Heinz (ambassador), Torin Thatcher (policeman), James Hayter (Perry).
by Sean Axmaker
The Fallen Idol (1948)
Awards & Honors
Academy Award nominations: Best Director (Carol Reed), Best Screenplay (Graham Greene)
British Academy (BAFTA) Award for Best British Film; nomination for Best Film from Any Source
Bodil Award (Denmark) for Best European Film
Golden Globe Awards nomination for Best Foreign Film
National Board of Review awards for Best Actor (Ralph Richardson, also for The Heiress, 1949) and Best Screenplay
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director
Venice Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay; Golden Lion nomination for Reed
The Critics' Corner: THE FALLEN IDOL
"A fine sensitive story, a brilliant child star and a polished cast, headed by Ralph Richardson and Michele Morgan, combine to make The Fallen Idol a satisfying piece of intelligent entertainment." - Variety, 1948
"Not only has [Carol Reed] got excitement of a most sharp and urbane sort in this film, but he has also got in it one of the keenest revelations of a child that we have ever had on the screen. ... It is freighted with sly and salient humors, very tender understandings of humankind and some truly blood-tingling surprises that Mr. Reed has directed in brilliant style. Everyone knows that his camera is one of the most fluent in use today. In this film, it is also one of the smartest in the revelation of personality." - Bosley Crowther, New York Times, November 16, 1949
"All that is so deeply satisfying in the best British pictures, the subtlety, intelligence, unforced humor and tragedy free of theatrical posture, is on view in The Fallen Idol. Here again director-producer Carol Reed demonstrates why he is generally regarded as Great Britain's best and one of the world's most consistent makers of movie masterpieces." - New York Post, 1949
"The film is directed with skill and cunning by the masterly Carol Reed, one of the great names of the film industry and comparable to the best Europe has ever had." - Boston Globe, 1949
"The plot is just about perfect.... There are terrifying, tense moments, too; the whole movie is very cleverly worked out." - Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt & Co., 1982)
"You might be tempted to see The Fallen Idol as ur-Masterpiece Theatre--the kind of ostentatiously understated thing the British do so terribly well, as what's been referred to as 'the Laura Ashley school of filmmaking.' And you'd be dead wrong. Because what all this honeyed veneration fails to describe is just how damn much fun the The Fallen Idol is. And, for all its quality and craft, how little it has lost its power to disturb--and to haunt." - Howard A. Rodman, essay on Criterion Collection site, December 22, 1992
"The Fallen Idol has been overshadowed by the noir comedy, giddy style, and Cold War thematics of Reed and Greene's subsequent The Third Man , but (in similarly dealing with the nature of betrayal), The Fallen Idol is actually a superior psychological drama. ... Richardson is quietly splendid. His buttoned-up butler is an amiable fabulist, roguish yet decent, understated but passionate. The yearning with which he regards the radiant Morgan fuels the movie." - J. Hoberman, The Village Voice, January 31, 2006
"The film itself exemplifies the extraordinary craftsmanship of British cinema in the late forties, both behind the camera and in front of it. ... 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." - Geoffrey O'Brien, essay on Criterion Collection site, November 6, 2006
by Rob Nixon