The Fallen Idol (1948)
Directed by Sir Carol Reed
Graham Greene was one of the great investigators into the hiding-holes and alleyways of human motives, and in the places and at the times when he lived, from revolutionary Mexico to leper colonies in the Congo, from murderous and disease-ridden Haiti to Sierra Leone to Castro’s Cuba, he would see plenty of what most of us would find unsettling or bizarre, and when you work as a British intelligence agent, you are not going to have mainly to do with schoolmistresses in the countryside and vicars tending their rose gardens. But in The Fallen Idol, he doesn’t leave London, and we aren’t on the wrong side of the tracks, either. Or I might say that wherever you find man, you will find the wrong side of the tracks; you don’t have to go to Havana to go to Havana.
The film is about a small boy, Philippe, (played with winsome innocence by Bobby Henrey), and his relationship with the house butler Baines (Ralph Richardson, brilliant as always, and somewhat cast against type here). The boy is the son of the French ambassador, who is always away on official business, and since his mother doesn’t pay him much attention either, he fixes on Baines as a kind of father-figure, really an idol. Boys will do that, after all. If you don’t give the boy a father in whose footsteps he is proud to walk, he will find some other “father,” and one perhaps not to your liking. And Baines spins all kinds of yarns about how he used to go big-game hunting in Africa, mainly to entertain Philippe, but also to give color to his own life, a drab and ordinary life, one of little achievement and much disappointment.
Baines is not, by nature, a wicked man. He genuinely likes the boy. The problem is that he is married to a shrew, and he has been carrying on an affair with a younger woman, his “niece” as he calls her to Philippe, who of course wouldn’t know what men and women do, and wouldn’t know what was sinful about going out to meet your niece and have a stroll in the park or something. In fact, Baines uses Philippe as an excuse to get out of the house, and that spurs Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) to try to force some confession from him. “Oh, you know all about them!” she seethes, setting her face close to his as he lies on his bed, “You're not such a child as you pretend to be! You've got a nasty, wicked mind and it ought to be beaten out of you!“ It is one lie after another, and the boy gets tangled up in them.
The crucial turn in the film occurs when Mrs. Baines, trying to spy on her husband, falls to her death from a second-story window. We’ve been seeing the grand sweep of the staircase all through the film, from the opening scene, when little Philippe, leaning out over the rail high up in a sort of balcony overlooking the front door, looks down at his father far below and bids him “au revoir.” It’s beautiful and dangerous, and sure enough, that danger comes into play. The death of Mrs. Baines is an accident, but Philippe doesn’t know that. He thinks that Baines got angry with her and pushed her. Of course, the police must investigate, and the boy must tell lies to protect Baines from being condemned for a murder that he did not actually commit, though the boy thinks otherwise; he doesn’t know otherwise why Baines wants him to lie, because he doesn’t understand the motive of the love affair. And the more he lies, the worse it gets, and the guiltier Baines appears.
This is classic Graham Greene, and he and Carol Reed make a terrific team; think of the noir film about a soulless murderer, The Third Man, with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, and the scene on the ferris wheel, when the villain looks out upon the crowds below as mere ants, meaningless, easy to crush. That film has been voted as the greatest British film of all time. Well, The Fallen Idol is in its way just as great, and Reed directs with just as sure a hand, focusing on the innocent and beautiful face of the mere child, and then the ambiguously pleasant face of the fraud, Baines. We also see, visually, in the empty space between the balcony and the floor below, what it means morally to fall from a great height. Philippe has to learn what we all learn, that man is not as he wishes to appear to be to others or even to himself. We are all Adam and Eve, hiding from the face of God. Whether you rise up on the morrow sadder but wiser for this knowledge — that is another question.
Trailer for “The Fallen Idol.”
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