British director Carol Reed’s reputation rests almost exclusively on his 1949 noir classic The Third Man, and if that were the only movie he ever made his reputation would be secure. But as great as that film is, it is not Reed’s only masterpiece.
Reed had an uneven career, but made two other films that measure up quite nicely with his masterwork: Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, a restored version of which opens today (Friday) at Shattuck Cinemas. The film is in limited release before making its debut on DVD later this year.
The genre-defying Fallen Idol cannot be categorized quite as easily as The Third Man. It is essentially plot-driven and contains elements of noir, melodrama and suspense, yet it also places great importance on character, with great care given to the depiction of the friendship between a boy and his family’s butler.
The plot, based on a short story by Graham Greene, centers on Baines (Ralph Richardson, in a sad and dignified performance), the butler for an ambassador. Phil (Bobby Henrey) is the ambassador’s son.
When Baines’ wife confronts him with evidence that he is having an affair, they argue, and at some point Mrs. Baines slips from a ledge above the mansion’s staircase and falls to her death. The child does not see the entire scene, but sees enough of it to make him believe that the butler killed his wife by throwing her down the stairs.
We know Baines is innocent but Reed still manages to keep the suspense taut as an investigation ensues. For Baines, despite his innocence, has managed to spin a complicated web of deceit in an effort to keep both his mistress and his employer from getting entangled in the case. He has told the boy what to say and what not to say to the police, which lies to tell and which truths to conceal. Yet the boy has already demonstrated his inability to keep a secret by revealing Baines’ affair, and now he is asked to conceal what he thinks are the details of a murder.
This is not just a case of Hitchcock-style suspense, however, for the tension in this film stems as much from character as from plot. Baines is a good man and a sympathetic character; his attempts to shield others from the investigation are noble; his kindness toward the boy is endearing. The boy is innocent, trusting and loving, yet caught up in an adult melodrama that he is incapable of understanding. There is a multi-layered tragedy in the making here: that Baines may be found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit, and that the responsibility for that unjust verdict will rest on the tiny shoulders of the naïve young boy who loves him.
But the greater tragedy at work, and the central theme of the film, is the violation of a child’s innocence. Phil is thrust into a world of lies and betrayal that he is unable to fully comprehend, and the final result is to knock Baines—the idol of the film’s title, a hero and father figure to Phil—from the pedestal on which the boy has placed him.
Reed uses symbolism beautifully, making effective use of the imagery available in the house itself. For instance, in an early shot Phil is seen through the banister as though peering through prison bars, though he is not so much imprisoned by his parents or by the house or by his station in life as he is by the limits of his own consciousness. He is simply too young to understand the complexities and emotions of the adults around him.
One extraordinary shot uses the house to demonstrate the distance between Baines and his wife as the couple, seen from the top of the stairs, cross paths in the great hall. As one descends and crosses, the other moves across the floor and toward the staircase, the two exchanging unpleasantries as they pass. Reed acknowledged the influence of the filmmaking style of Orson Welles on The Third Man, but the influence is evident here as well as Reed borrows from Citizen Kane in using the vast spaces and echoing surfaces of the mansion to illustrate the distance and coldness of a disintegrating marriage.
The basement too is used symbolically, for it not only represents the servants’ quarters and kitchen, it becomes the repository for the characters’ basest emotions, a place where the thoughts suppressed in the majestic halls of the grand mansion finally bubble to the surface.
Most effective and subtle however is the use of the great hall itself, with its checkerboard floor reinforcing the strategy of the investigators and the investigated as they play out the dangerous endgame of the plot’s delicate chess match. The police close in, surrounding and interrogating Baines as he retreats, steps forward and retreats again, searching for a path through the various threats and scenarios of crime and punishment, trying to think a few moves ahead in an attempt to avoid checkmate.
Child actors are frequently nauseating, so cloyingly precocious and meddlesome. But The Fallen Idol provides an all-too-rare exception. Bobby Henrey’s performance here is something to behold; he looks, sounds and acts like a genuine 8-year-old boy. Too often, kids in movies are transformed into miniature adults or held up as paragons of virtue, more symbol than human: child as Innocence, as Purity, as Spirituality, etc. Phil is not given any special talents or rare intelligence; nor does he apparently have a speech coach to transform his lisp into crisp, snappy dialogue. This kid is just a kid, by turns endearing, annoying, intelligent, clueless, loving, selfish, thoughtful—but always a kid.
Situational ethics is not necessarily innate. Phil is told to lie sometimes, told to tell the truth other times; it’s hardly clear to him what’s right and wrong, and his confusion is compounded by the fact that the adults around him at time seem to hear only the lies and ignore the truth.
In Phil’s mind, adults are infallible, and their institutions—law and justice—are absolutes. The Fallen Idol depicts his disillusionment as he learns that adults are indeed fallible; that institutions are as highly subjective as the people who administer them; and that even if children aren’t exactly miniature adults, adults are in fact just grown children—as endearing, annoying, intelligent, clueless and selfish as those they shepherd into adulthood.
THE FALLEN IDOL (1948)
Starring Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey,
Michèle Morgan, Jack Hawkins, Bernard Lee. Directed by Carol Reed. Based on a short story by Graham Greene.
Playing at Shattuck Cinemas.