Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Carol Reed’s ‘Fallen Idol’ Finally Comes to Berkeley

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday September 08, 2006

In May, the Daily Planet reviewed the theatrical re-release of Carol Reed’s 1948 classic The Fallen Idol, which had opened in San Francisco and was scheduled to open in Berkeley the following week. However, the day the review was published, we were informed that the East Bay engagement had been canceled due to poor attendance at the San Francisco screenings. A few readers were a bit annoyed.  

Well, if you’d like to catch it on the big screen before it heads to DVD (Criterion plans to release a two-disc edition in November), you have exactly one chance: tonight (Friday) at Pacific Film Archive. The film is showing as part of a double feature with another Reed masterpiece, The Third Man (1949) as part of PFA’s “A Theater Near You” series. 

The Fallen Idol is a noirish tale of a boy and his relationship with the family butler. The boy’s father, an ambassador, is frequently away, leaving Baines, the butler, played by Sir Ralph Richardson, to fill the void. When Baines is accused of murdering his wife, the boy, Phil, gets lost in the adult world of passion, lies, deceit, concealed motivations and situational ethics, a world he cannot even begin to understand. Various adults ask him to tell the truth, each with his own motives and notions of what the truth is, leading to series of events in which Phil alternately serves as the means of Baines’ salvation and downfall. 

The film, based on a short story by Graham Greene, demonstrates a masterful use of interiors, from the great, echoing hall and grand staircase of the ambassador’s mansion, which serve to highlight the growing distance between Baines and his wife, to the cramped basement where suppressed hostilities come to the fore, to the checkered tile floor which suggests a chessboard on which Baines and the police trade tense, strategic moves. 

The Fallen Idol will be followed by Reed’s most famous film, The Third Man, another Greene adaptation. Joseph Cotton plays Holly Martins, a naïve American in post-World War II Vienna, looking to join his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in business. In Vienna, Martins learns that Lime is dead, while the local police, headed up by Calloway (Trevor Howard), inform him of Lime’s criminal record.  

Though Welles is on screen for just 20 minutes or so, he became forever associated with the role of Lime, later starring in a British radio series based on the character. The theme song also stuck with Welles throughout his life. House musicians would strike the familiar chords every time Welles entered a restaurant. 

The score for the film is almost as famous as the movie itself, consisting entirely of one man playing one instrument. “Anton Karos will have you in a dither with his zither!” ran the original trailers for the film, and indeed he does, though the value of that fact depends on whether you consider a dither a positive or negative experience. Many are put off by the score, but it adds greatly to the atmosphere of the film. Karas was playing in a Vienna nightclub where Reed heard him and recruited him. The Harry Lime theme became a top ten hit in its day. 

The film builds toward a climactic chase through the sewers of Vienna, a sequence of brilliant direction, editing, sound design and photography. Taught action shots are juxtaposed with quiet shots of the tense faces of policemen in wait, of empty passageways with glistening cobblestones and dripping water, of probing flashlights piercing the underground darkness. Take any moment in the last 20 minutes of this film and freeze the frame and you’ll find a beautiful still photograph.  

The Fallen Idol shows at 7 p.m. and The Third Man shows at 8:55 p.m. at PFA’s theater at 2575 Bancroft Ave. 



Photograph: Sir Ralph Richardson stars as Baines in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol.