Carol Reed, 1948
Starring: Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey, Michèle Morgan, Denis O'Dea
Philipe, the young son of a diplomat, is often left alone by his busy father and has developed a close relationship with the butler, Baines. Baines tells him fabricated stories about his dangerous life in Africa and tries to spare the boy from Mrs. Baines, his cruel, jealous wife also employed by the family. Baines tries to leave her — he is having an affair with a younger woman — and she pretends to go out of town to spy on him. She finds him with Julie, his girlfriend, and the quarrel violently. She falls to her death accidentally, which Philipe misinterprets as a murder. In his attempts to help Baines, he further incriminates the man.
Like director Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol has been shunted to the side in favor of The Third Man, which is really a crime in both cases. Shown primarily from the perspective of a child, the film has a haunting quality found in the best films about children on the verge of a developing adult consciousness (Spirit of the Beehive comes to mind in this category), but who fundamentally perceive the world differently. There are plenty of fairy tale like moments — Mrs. Baines is an obvious stand-in for the wicked stepmother — and the palatial house becomes a character all its own. The film was set inside a foreign embassy (most likely French) in London, which would the family to have sufficient wealth to warrant a large house and the employment of a household of servants.
The house is both immense and ominous, as well as a child’s playground. Philipe has the space to play lengthy games of hide-and-seek and to escape from Mrs. Baines. But the mansion is also a place of isolation and foreboding, essentially a prison. Being born into wealth and luxury means a life of loneliness and isolation for the child, as his parents are largely absent. His father appears once at the start of the film and his mother shows up only in the last seconds of the conclusion. Philippe desperately searches for companionship and surrogate parents, which he finds with abundance in Baines. The idea of wanting freedom, of wanting to escape from domestic confines that plague Baines and his young charge, is symbolized by the house, where they are both trapped without love or intimacy.
The Fallen Idol has a deeply noir sense of style with German expressionist-like lighting, Dutch angles, and the unforgettable staircase — that centerpiece of film noir. Georges Périnal’s cinematography and Vincent Korda’s set designs turn the house into a place equally fitting for childhood fantasy, illicit affairs, jealous rages, and violent death. The film was based on a story, “The Basement Room,” written by Graham Greene. This marks the first collaboration between novelist Graham Greene and director Carol Reed. They would go on to adapt Greene’s The Third Man and Our Man in Havana, though this is apparently the work that Greene was the most happy with. There were several changes, mainly that Baines apparently pushed his wife to her death, while in the film she falls and dies accidentally after she continues to try to spy on him.
There are a number of excellent performances, namely Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits, Doctor Zhivago) as Baines. The lovely Michèle Morgan (Port of Shadows) puts in a decent performance as his young girlfriend, Julie, while Sonia Dresdel (The Trials of Oscar Wilde) is memorable as the foul-tempered but not wholly evil Mrs. Baines. Bobby Henrey is transcendent as Philipe, possibly because Green allows him to act like a child. A series of lies, fantasies, and incorrectly witnessed or interpreted events rack his childlike mind and he is desperate to do what’s right, to help exonerate Baines regardless of whether or not the butler really killed his wife. The moment the boy tries to tell the truth — explaining away a piece of evidence that clears Baines of all charges — would have actually damned Baines yet again. But by this time, no one believes him. Philipe soon gives in to the childlike craving for attention and becomes incredibly annoying, which actually serves the story well and ends with him being plunked in a chair, out of the way of adult conversation.
The Fallen Idol comes recommended and has aged remarkably well. It might sound like a tiresome story about a wealthy brat and an uptight British butler, but it has far more too offer, including a sense of mystery and wonder. Fortunately, Criterion released it and gave it a much-deserved restoration, even throwing in some special features.