The Fallen Idol (1948)
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In pursuit of proof of her husband's infidelities, Mrs. Baines goes to incredible lengths. She even stands on a dangerous ledge to watch them. But a gust of wind causes the lower part of the window to knock her legs out from underneath her, causing her to fall two stories to her death. Enter the police (Jack Hawkins, Geoffrey Keen, Bernard Lee), who are wondering how Mrs. Baines died so violently. Baines and Julie panic, and begin trying to put together a coherent story of an accident (although they know nothing about what actually happened). They have no choice but to involve Phillipe, but this is unfortunate because the little fellow knows little about creative, consistent lying. So details of Baines' relationship with Julie come out, and the police begin to wonder that this is not an accident but murder.
The film is a gem because much of it is shot from the perspective of the boy. He has admired Baines as a honorable father figure, but he is increasingly worried for Baines and Julie and he is increasingly confused when, far from being advocates of honesty, they suggest he lie to assist them. The film does end with a degree of disillusionment for the little fellow, rather unusual for such films in general. But the disillusionment is a key to Greene's view of the world (Holly Martin's of his pal Harry Lime in THE THIRD MAN for instance, or Van Johnson's views of God and Deborah Kerr in the original THE END OF THE AFFAIR). It is a remarkably good film, and well worth watching.
Look out for some terrific performances by the main cast (especially Bobby Henrey as Phillipe), but also by a series of supporting characters : two washerwomen, a sharp tongued lady of the night, a kindly bobby, several detectives and a perceptive doctor. The photography bears mentioning. There are shades of the "Third Man", as well as a great hide and seek game in darkness under the furniture in the empty Embassy, and a truly memorable run through the empty streets of London in the dark. From a personal point of view I enjoyed several scenes shot on location at the London Zoo, which was all very familiar even from a fifty year vantage point.
The film won a British Academy award so it's not exactly undiscovered, but it's not been easy to find at revival theaters or on DVD, but it deserves to be. As I said at the top, a minor masterpiece which operates on many levels. (Los Angeles-April 2006).
Another classic pairing of Directot Carol Reed with Writer Graham Greene - who would later go on to even more success with their collaboration in "The Third Man". While I wouldn't rate this movie quite as high as TTM, it is very good film in its own right.
This is a tale as seen from a child's eyes in a very grown-up world with very adult issues. This is captured superbly in the cinematography that uses low angles at child height and looking up. This is also a story of secrets and lies - and so the camera is very effective in changing shots and angles to always give them impression that others are spying or eavesdropping. This is also conveyed very effectively with the set - which is filmed substantially withing the Embassy residence which is a huge, lavish mansion. It has many levels and staircases - none so impressive as the ornate, curving main staircase. The camera also makes good use of close-ups and wide angle shots. Often times, movies with stick with one or the other. I think it helped keep it interesting.
The characters were all well cast. I especially liked Ralph Richardson as the butler whom the boy, Phillipe (Bobby Henry), idolizes. Richardson has just the right balance of decorum and warmth to make you understand why the boy, who is starved for attention, follows after him. He has a very smooth speaking voice that is pleasant to listen to. He reminds me a lot of Kevin Spacey in his appearance and demeanor (especially in "Pay it Forward"). I think the director did a great job of eliciting a good performance out of the then 8 year old Henry. I heard that the director's secret was not to have the child respond to an actors lines - but to que the child himself in a different take. I think the precociousness and spontaneity of the child were captured quite well with this.
There are quite a few memorable scenes - hide and seek in the dark, cavernous mansion; the boy running through the dark London streets with all the alleys, archways, wet streets and glowing lanterns; the paper airplane flying from the upper balcony and circling all the way down, slowly, to land at a detectives feet; the detective questioning Baines at the top of the stairs, all the while the tilted window is visible in the background. The music changes pace with the story, and at times it was frantic and frenetic to match the suspense and fear of the story. I felt it was used quite effectively.
The story addresses themes of loneliness, betrayal, secrecy, lies, and loss of innocence in a plot that kept my interest from beginning to end. My only complaint is that at times the dialogue was difficult to understand with the clip, British accents. I wish this had been offered in closed captions so I could catch some missed conversations.
Based on Graham Greene's short story "The Basement Room", the film builds on the look of Hitchcock's "Rebecca", with a house as visually significant as Manderlay, plus fraught with Lillian Hellman's sophisticated view of childhood as in "These Three". Key is not just Georges Périnal's enthralling story, but the stunning direction by Carol Reed in how he uses gorgeous black and white cinematography from both a memorable interior and a London that ranges from scary night to a misleadingly bright daylight that is equally full of secrets, as seen in a new 35 MM print at NYC's Film Forum.
The beautiful production design is dominated by a gorgeous staircase in the ambassador's residence that has to rank with one of the all time movie centerpieces as in "Gone With The Wind", and is as central for the first and last third of the film as the Rear Window in another Hitchcock film. Reed has the camera go up and down those heavily symbolic stairs as a shared link from the main floors that are the busy public areas, down to the basement servant quarters then up and up to the private residential areas, with overlooking balconies and windows that are key for spying on each level. The staircase sets up several dramatic events (adding layers to the film's title), climaxing in a notable scene of the incredibly tense voyage of a child's innocent-seeming paper airplane that carries a significant clue slowly, slowly traversing that vertical no-man's/everyman's land from the top to the bottom, as we hold our breath where it will land.
Throughout the film, the complex world of adult relationships and interactions is seen through the eyes of a child (the wonderfully natural, lively, lisping Bobby Henrey - who now lives in Connecticut and did a Q & A at the Film Forum I didn't attend) so that childish activities take on ironic or double meanings of freedom or dread, between appearances and reality, from a good night story, to a game of hide and seek, to a picnic, to running away, to an idyll at the zoo that one would assume inspired Rowling for a key scene in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone". Throughout the film, the boy constantly misunderstands what he is seeing - sometimes he sees the truth, sometimes he doesn't, sometimes he only sees part of the truth, as the adults alternate in advising him to lie or don't lie.
The young Ralph Richardson is absolutely marvelous as he switches from father substitute to hen-pecked husband (Sonia Dresdel as his wife recalls Agnes Moorhead), to relaxed lover, to efficient butler.
While this new print revival is being distributed as a forgotten masterpiece, my parents vividly remembered seeing it first run in their neighborhood Brooklyn movie theater and that it was quite popular. I presume that the same team's next work on the masterpiece "The Third Man" overshadowed this gem in film history, but also perhaps because this film doesn't end on quite the cynicism that a contemporary audience expects from their work.
This is a marvelous film, full of irony and subtlety. Phillipe is too young to grasp the meaning of much of what he sees and hears. He unexpectedly interrupts a meeting between Baines and Julie in a tea shop. She is telling Baines she will be leaving; that their relationship is hopeless. Baines is trying to find someway for her to stay, if even for just a day or two more. Suddenly there is Phillipe, happy to find Baines, climbing onto a seat next to them, having a pastry, observing what Baines and Julie are saying to each other so quietly and intensely, and believing when Baines says they are talking about a friend and that Julie is his niece. Something is happening, he knows, but he simply doesn't register how desperately they want to talk to each other without pretense.
Phillipe tells fibs, especially to protect McGregor, his small pet snake, from Mrs. Baines' anger. When she accuses him of telling lies, Baines tries to protect Phillipe by saying that there are lies and there are lies...that some lies can simply be a kindness to protect others. Mrs. Baines finds ways to trap Phillipe into admitting he met Baines' "niece." When she dies, Baines tries to find ways to use lies...or at least not the full truth...to protect Julie. Phillipe lies to the police in an effort to protect Baines. The conclusion of the film is a masterpiece of amusing irony when we realize the truth might be more dangerous to Baines that Phillipe's lies.
Carol Reed directed The Fallen Idol in 1948. The year before he gave us Odd Man Out. In 1949 came The Third Man. Then Outcast of the Islands in 1952. That's four incredible films, one right after the other. And don't forget Our Man in Havana in 1959. The Fallen Idol, The Third Man and Our Man in Havana were collaborations with Graham Greene. These movies are not just literate and often amusing, they're thoughtful and often uneasy. And all are stunning to look at.
The Fallen Idol gives us two great performances, or rather one great performance and one performance great despite itself. Ralph Richardson as Baines is as understated as the character. We're witnessing a character full of emotion and longing, yet so carefully proper and repressed it hurts. Baines relationship with Phillipe is genuine, yet in many ways it's based on lies and made-up stories. This is one of Richardson's best performances. As Phillipe, Bobby Henrey does a masterful job, but that's because of the patience and skill of Carol Reed and the cleverness of the film editor. Henrey was a nonprofessional who got the part because Reed thought he looked exactly like the kind of young boy Phillipe would look like. As a person who worked on the film with Reed said later, Henrey couldn't act and "had an attention span of a demented flea." Reed took infinite pains to gain Henrey's friendship and confidence. He would walk the boy through the part, usually standing in for Richardson when Richardson would have been off camera feeding Henrey lines. He shot miles of film with Henrey, and then spliced the bits and pieces together into coherent reaction shots. You'll note that Henrey has almost no scenes that go for more than a word or sentence before there are cutaways. Even so, the result is a great film portrayal of a little boy, Phillipe, who can be irritating, impatient and willful, and yet touching in his determination protect his friend, Baines.
I sometimes wonder if this film would have been more successful with a different title. IMHO "The Fallen Idol" suggests a Saturday matinee shlockfest or a pretentious drawing room comedy.
This is a good companion piece to another Graham Greene novella -- also directed by Reed -- the Third Man, which is just possibly the greatest film of all time...
The POV is told almost completely through the eyes of a boy who wants to protect his beloved friend and butler Baines. In the process, he almost ensures that Baines will be charged with murder.
It's wonderfully staged so that the boy gets to witness all kinds of adult stuff, but doesn't completely understand what he's seen.
Ralph Richardson is great as Baines and there is genuine suspense in whether the boy will tell the truth or lie and whether either will help his friend.