"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 5, 2012

"The Fallen Idol" (1948) by Carol Reed

The Fallen Idol (1948) is a film by British director Carol Reed, based on the short story "The Basement Room" (1935) by Graham Greene. As was the case with the other films they made, The Third Man (1949) and Our Man in Havana (1959), the author worked closely together with the director on the script. 

The iconic image of the film comes somewhere at the beginning and is repeated several times after that: a boy staring down from an upstairs landing, peering through the railings at the doings of the grown-ups in the hall, almost as a spy or double agent. Both worlds are connected by a huge staircase - perhaps the main actor in this film which is almost a film noir, thanks to the cinematography of Georges Périnal and Vincent Korda’s set designs. The interior of the Belgrave mansion takes on the same mythical proportions as the streets of Vienna in The Third Man.

The film is mostly seen through the naive eyes of the boy on the landing, who is further set apart for not being an actor and playing his role very awkwardly. But that fits the intention of the film marvelously, for in the story the grown-ups are all the time "acting" and scheming, while the young Phillippe indeed can't "act."

Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) is the son of a diplomat, neglected by his parents, who idolizes his father's butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), the only human being he feels close to. In order to entertain the boy, Baines tells strong stories about his non-existing exploits in exotic Africa, such as single-handed putting down an uprising, or killing a man in self-defense. The sad reality is that the butler has never been out of England and is stuck in a loveless marriage with a veritable harpy. Mrs Baines (Sonia Dresdel) also works in the Embassy, where she rules with an iron fist as the top maid. She is a sour killjoy, even destroying a small snake the boy secretly keeps, and Phillippe and Baines are naturally bonding against her.

Phillippe catches Baines in a teashop with a young woman and Baines asks him to keep quiet about his "niece" - in fact she is Julie (Michele Morgan), a typist at the embassy with whom he is in love.

And then death invades - Mrs Baines has fallen down the massive staircase after a fierce argument about Julie with her husband. Police officers come to investigate. Phillippe naturally believes his "idol" Mr Baines has done the deed of killing the harridan, and desperately tries to protect him. But his lies are so awkward that they only serve to betray Baines and lead him into deeper trouble. Baines' tall stories also come to haunt him.

Next the police discover evidence that the fall was accidental and Baines is off the hook, but he has had to admit that his stories about Africa were all lies. He has lost his heroic status and so from his side also betrayed Phillippe. The boy, who has been ordered to tell the truth, now pathetically insists to the police that their new evidence is wrong (as he honestly but wrongly believes), but nobody listens to him anymore...

This is a subtle movie that rewards leisurely viewing.