The Fallen Idol is one of the best achieved examples in cinema of seeing the world through the eyes of a child.
The Fallen Idol, directed by Carol Reed. At the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA
By Gerald Peary
It amazes me how often people pass on this wisdom, so patently untrue, that good movies are made invariably from bad fiction. To offer an obvious rejoinder to this shaky thesis: the many successful adaptations, often Hollywood productions, forged from the distinguished writings of Graham Greene, from This Gun for Hire (1942) through The Quiet American (2002). Greene had a particularly fertile period after World War II, an informal trilogy of Brighton Rock (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), and The Third Man (1949), all made in his native England.
I caught the rarely screened Brighton Rock on TCM the other night, a prime British noir which holds its place against far better-known American classics. The Third Man? An enduring masterpiece, and probably my favorite British film of all time. The Fallen Idol, digitally restored and a welcome revival from Rialto Pictures, is also an exemplary work, at least for its first two thirds. It’s based on a grim 1935 short story, “The Basement Room,” and Greene was correct to worry when he agreed to pen the adapted screenplay for filmmaker Carol Reed: “It seemed to me that the subject matter was ultimately unfilmable-a murder committed by the most sympathetic character and an unhappy ending.” Reed, not concerned, instructed Greene to make some upbeat changes, and these changes, including a strained positive conclusion, are what keep The Fallen Idol from greatness.
The good part: The Fallen Idol is one of the best achieved examples in cinema of seeing the world through the eyes of a child. Our hero, Philip, played beautifully by 7-year-old Bobby Henrey, is the lonely, needy son of a foreign ambassador in London. His father, seen briefly and mostly in extreme long shot, is always on the run, and exits the movie in its first ten minutes. His mother, who lives on the continent, is totally absent from Philip’s life. He can barely remember her. The embassy, with its huge rooms and ceilings to the sky and sweeping staircases and curved banisters seems as big as a castle with a tiny boy in short pants in its midst. We are there at his level as he races about with a child’s exuberance, and we share his secret, that he keeps a tame snake behind a loose brick in a wall. And we are party also to his boy crush.
Philip (and the camera) only have eyes for a friendly manservant, Baines (an eloquent performance by Ralph Richardson), a clear father substitute. Baines finds time in his workday to play games with Philip and also to tell the boy Kiplingesque tall stories about when he was ostensibly in Africa, shooting an occasional giraffe and using his gun against the self-appointed king of “the darkies.” He had to come home to England to marry. There were many women in Africa, “ but they weren’t white.” Philip glows whenever his special servant strolls by. “BAINES!” he bellows, demanding his older friend’s attention, the way youngster Brandon De Wilde later would shout out, “SHANE!”, for his cowboy love.
But all is not fine in Philip’s kingdom. The kindly Baines has a wicked witch of a wife, played by Sonia Dresdel with the classic coldness of Agnes Moorehead’s Mrs. Kane and Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. She is always sending Philip to his room for disobedience and, being totally malevolent, she kills his pet snake, chucking it into an incinerator. Likewise, she’s a bitchy, wearying, unloving spouse, which explains why good-guy Baines has fallen hard for someone else. She’s a French woman, Julie (Michèle Morgan), blonde, young, and pretty, who has worked seven months in the embassy.
On the day that the story takes place, Julie tells the forlorn Baines that she can’t take their secret romance any more, that, though he begs her to stay on, she is returning to France. And this is the most arresting section of the movie: their intense, heartbreaking exchanges take place within eyesight and hearing range of Philip. They try to disguise their plight, pretending that Julie is Baines’s niece, that the relationship being discussed is really that of Julie’s friend. How does Philip react to all this adult melodrama? He shifts by the second from deep curiosity to total distraction, from intuiting all to not caring an iota about this weighty, gooey stuff. Just what a precocious child would do.
At 45 minutes into The Fallen Idol, the exact midway point, Philip leaves his adult friends just long enough for suffering Baines and Julie at last to have a passionate kiss. Hooray for them! If Philip doesn’t quite understand, the audience wants this couple to get together. We like and trust them, if for no other reason than their sincere kindness to the boy. They willingly join Philip in a rousing game of hide-and-seek. But good things will end: Mrs. Baines catches them all.
Does the rule for spoilers apply to a 68-year-old movie? Because I assume you’ve never seen this somewhat obscure work, I keep my critic’s lips zipped about the gory details of what happens next. Someone dies. Perhaps it’s accidental. Perhaps it’s a murder. Police are brought in, and I can say that The Fallen Idol becomes far less interesting, suddenly a standard whodunit. As I indicated earlier, Greene softens the deep pessimism of the ending of his short story. The finish of the movie is probably more palatable for an audience but it feels constructed and untrue.
There are some shots in The Fallen Idol—the camera tipped, wet streets with shadowy figures — which anticipate the showy expressionism of The Third Man, also directed by Carol Reed with a Greene screenplay. Better, the maddeningly overstated score of Victor Alwyn for The Fallen Idol gives way to Anton Karas’s wonderful orchestration for The Third Man. Sweet memory. I once owned the ‘78 record, with the zither featured on both sides, “The Third Man Theme” and, ah, “The Café Mozart Waltz”!
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.