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The Fallen Idol

The Fallen Idol(1948)

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Because it is defined in production as business and as collaboration, cinema is, like nature, subject to confluent and colliding laws we can hardly predict or even discern. How did Casablanca happen? Why were Robert Altman's '70s films so much better than those of the '60s or '80s? Consider Carol Reed: a long career spanning almost four decades, and encompassing 33 features, and yet the lot is largely undistinguished (sometimes execrable, most often adequate) aside from a trio of startling, precise, infinitely rich films he made in the late '40s, one after the other - Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), and The Third Man (1949). Credit, if you wish, the synthesis provided by producer Alexander Korda, co-writer (on two out of three) Graham Greene, and cinematographer Robert Krasker (on two out of three as well). As viewers, we'll never know for sure what made these films coalesce into magnetic beauty, and Reed's other work recede from memory. It hardly matters in the watching - these three movies defiantly resist exhaustion after multiple viewings, and if the first is the most gimmicky in structure (James Mason's IRA gunman's last night on earth as blood runs from a single bullet hole), and the third has already been totemized as a 20th century ur-text, then the second movie may well be the best of the trio - the most sublime, the most resonant, and the most perfectly executed.

The Fallen Idol - a distributor-mandated title Greene couldn't stand, though the film itself was his favorite - is a classically Greenian piece of emotional story structure, except that it was significantly complicated in the adaptation (from Greene's short tale "The Basement Room") by all concerned. It is shaped by the point of view of an eight-year-old boy, Phil (Bobby Henrey), a spoiled and inquisitive London diplomat's son whose parents are absent (Mom is convalescing somewhere, from who knows what). The brilliance of The Fallen Idol radiates from Reed's compositions - we see things as Phil sees them, even when he's not in the scene, from secret angles, through staircase balusters, out of hiding places, in inconclusive segments. It may be one of the most eloquent portraits in cinema of a child's scrambling, half-informed perspective, attempting to make sense of an adult world that bulldozes on around him or her, obliviously and with its own inexplicable agenda.

So, what does happen grips you like a panicked stranger grabbing your arm. Phil is cared for to a large extent by Baines (Ralph Richardson), the kind and responsible embassy butler, and to a lesser extent by Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), his autocratic harpy of a wife. One day, Baines slips out and Phil, sneaking down the fire escape, follows. In a cramped tea shop, he finds Baines sitting with Julie (Michele Morgan), and helps himself to their uneaten scones, listening but half-understanding their tortured, half-disguised conversation, in which they try to say goodbye at the tail-end of a doomed love affair. If The Fallen Idol were nothing more than this fantastically affecting and wise scene, it'd still be a landmark - the rhythmic textures and triple meanings behind every word and worried glance are virtually without peer in British film. It's here too that you realize that Richardson's superhuman reserves of gravity, restraint and exhibitionist intelligence make him one of the greatest screen actors ever - certainly, he is among the most brilliant for whom movies, outside of The Fallen Idol, were little more than triteness and unfulfilled promises.

Still, it's Henrey's unpredictable performance that fuels the film, as much as it had to be reportedly coaxed from the distracted child in ragged pieces. In fact, its off-center, impulsive oddness, probably a direct result of Reed's efforts at shooting around an unskilled child thespian, is enthralling, and the character comes off as intensely reactive. The story suits the situation fine: after the tea shop face-off, Phil has a powerful secret to keep, and he fails (thanks to the slip up of a single pronoun, "they" instead of "he"), which itself becomes another secret. The shadows close in, and the seemingly infinite and ornate halls of the largely unoccupied embassy acquire a proto-noir-ish menace. Eventually, there's a body to account for, and more secrets and lies.

There are moments from the film that haunt your idle thoughts - how Richardson winces on the inside at Morgan's despair in the tea shop ("It's how you put things..."), trying to deflect his reaction under the boy's gaze; how Henrey, a propos of little, simply blurts "I hate you" at Mrs. Baines over breakfast; the boy awakened late in the movie from a sound sleep by a single bobby pin falling onto his pillow, only to glance up and behold the malevolent Mrs. Baines looming over him, like, as Greene wrote in the original story, "the witches of his dreams." It's popular cinema at its best, but also a surprisingly rare storytelling feat: Reed & Co. have fashioned a narrative experience entirely out of the tension between the characters' semi-disclosed inner lives and their exterior decorum.

This title is currently unavailable. For more information about The Fallen Idol, visit The Criterion Collection.

by Michael Atkinson