Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Graham Greene, Lesley Storm, William Templeton
Based on a Short Story by: Graham Greene
Starring: Bobby/Robert Henrey, Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel
Running Time: 92 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
In my review of Odd Man Out back in 2012, I talked about how Carol Reed’s The Third Man had long been one of my all time favourite films, yet I hadn’t ventured further into the director’s back catalogue until then. Well it’s taken me three years to build on my addition of Odd Man Out to the checklist, but Studiocanal helped me out by offering up a screener of their new re-release of Reed’s The Fallen Idol from 1948. So, was it worth the wait and does it match up to The Third Man?
Well it’s probably unfair to compare it too closely to The Third Man as I did (too frequently) in my Odd Man Out review. Although also written by Graham Greene (and based on his short story), The Fallen Idol is quite a different film. It can still be classed as a mystery thriller, with a death being central to the plot and a murder investigation surrounding this. However, the audience always knows this was an accident and the film concerns itself chiefly with the lies being told and whether or not anyone will come clean about them.
Let me backtrack a bit though to explain the plot. The Fallen Idol is set in the French embassy in London, where the ambassador’s son Phillipe (Bobby, now Robert Henrey) lives. With his father very busy and his mother having been away for a long time (I missed why), Phillipe is looked after by the butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), and his wife (Sonia Dresdel). He idolises Mr. Baines, who is always very kind to the boy and regales him with made-up stories of his heroic adventures in Africa.
Mr. Baines is acting very strangely though and Phillipe stumbles upon the butler secretively meeting with an attractive young woman (Michèle Morgan), who Baines tells Phillipe is his niece. This is not the case of course and Mrs. Baines finds out about the affair through a slip up from Phillipe. She keeps quiet until she can catch them in the act and, when she does, there’s an altercation which leads to her accidentally falling from a high window to the bottom of the embassy’s marble staircase.
Phillipe catches glimpses of this argument and accident, but, from what he sees, it seems that Mr. Baines pushed his wife down the stairs. The police are of course informed, but Mr. Baines doesn’t want the truth about his affair to get out, so he keeps much of the story quiet. Not wanting to get the man he most admires into trouble, Phillipe also tries to keep information from the police, but he struggles to keep a handle on all the lies he and those around him have told.
I’ve spent more time than usual explaining the plot, but really it’s a fairly simple premise that leads the way for a character driven chamber piece. It breaks out now and again, but most of the film is set in the one house, making for a fairly claustrophobic and tense drama/thriller, particularly in the second half after the accident. The film’s drive comes from character interactions and relationships, particularly with regards to how the adult characters act towards the young Phillipe.
From the strict Mrs. Baines trying to get to the bottom of what Phillipe saw, to the friendly but still manipulative Mr. Baines, all the way to the police trying to glean information from him, the film provides a fascinating look at the nature of youth and innocence and how it can be exploited.
This all works beautifully through the way the film is almost entirely shown from Phillipe’s perspective. The camera rarely strays from the rooms he inhabits and, other than the key fact that Mrs. Baines’ death was an accident, we aren’t given any information that Phillipe isn’t given. Of course, watching the film as an adult, we understand more of what he sees than he does, which is part of what makes the story more tense and engrossing. Reed occasionally winds up the audience in other ways too though. There’s a scene where Mr. Baines is under pressure from the police to explain why forensic evidence doesn’t match her having fallen down the stairs and the audience are clearly shown the window we know she actually fell from in the background. It’s excruciating to watch (in the best possible way) as you desperately want to shout “look behind you!”
Also pivotal to allowing the film to work as well as it does is the fact that the portrayal of the central young boy is done so naturally. Performances from the 40’s are often quite stagey and over the top, so child actors in particular can be gratingly bad in classic films. However, Henrey is totally believable as a child out of his depth in a very adult situation. His innocence and naivety is perfectly handled throughout and, put simply, had the performance not worked, the film would have totally fallen apart at the seams.
As much praise as I’ve lavished on the film, I haven’t given it the full five stars though. Maybe I was expecting a more visually showy Third Man type of affair again or maybe the enclosed nature of the film kept it too low key to truly blow me away. However, it’s a hard film to fault and an enjoyable one to watch due to its simple yet gripping story and wonderfully natural child’s eye view of the secrets and lies people tell.
The Fallen Idol is out on 16th November in the UK on Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Studiocanal. I watched the DVD version and the picture quality was pretty good. It seems ever so slightly washed out, but a look at the restoration comparison included in the special features showed that they did a good job of repairing the damaged, low contrast negative they had. Audio isn’t quite as good though. There’s an audible hiss throughout and the music is very loud compared to the dialogue which was occasionally hard to make out in earlier scenes in particular.
There’s a generous amount of special features. There are substantial interviews with Robert Henrey, Guy Hamilton (who was the assistant director and went on to have a great directing career of his own), film historian Charles Drazin and writer/director fan of the film, Richard Ayoade. As well as the aforementioned restoration featurette, you also get a locations featurette with Richard Dacre. So it’s a fully loaded package I can thoroughly recommend.