The Fallen Idol
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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 (Michèle 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