Overlooked & Underseen: The Fallen Idol (1948)
If you’re like me, you’re always looking for recommendations for good films. I’m following a wonderful bunch of people on Twitter and am always eager to see what they think is worthy of watching. I’ve also had people send me movies as gifts over the years. The Fallen Idol was one such gift many years ago. My lovely friend, Matt K from Philly, send me a VHS (no less!) of the movie for my birthday. At the time, the movie was totally new to me. It was one of Matt’s favorites and he thought I’d like it. He was right, of course. I love the movie and am happy to finally feature it here as part of Overlooked & Underseen.
Of course, the names Carol Reed and Graham Greene are something to conjure with. Neither man is a stranger to critical acclaim. For this film alone, both were nominated for Oscars (Reed for Best Director and Greene for Adapted Screenplay). The Fallen Idol was based on Greene’s 1935 short story “The Basement Room”. You’d think with those two names going for it, this film would be more well known.
Young Philippe (Bobby Henrey), or Phile, as he is called, is the son of the French ambassador to England. He’s very precocious and basically runs wild. His parents are away for a fortnight and Phile is left in the hands of Baines (Ralph Richardson) and his wife Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), caretakers of the enormous house/embassy. Phile and Baines get along really well. Baines tells the young boy stories of his adventures in Africa and is always willing to answer Phile’s many questions. Phile idolizes Baines and hangs on his every word. Mrs. Baines, on the other hand, doesn’t like Phile and is always looking to punish him. For example, Phile has a small pet snake and once Mrs. Baines discovers it, she throws it in the cast iron stove.
It’s clear that Baines isn’t getting along with his wife, either. We see the tension between the couple. Baines comes across as a gentle soul while Mrs. Baines comes off as a shrew. Baines is seen huddling in whispers to a beautiful young woman named Julie (Michèle Morgan). It becomes clear the two have an affection for one another. It’s also clear Mrs. Baines suspects the two are having an affair.
Phile discovers the Baines and Julie together one afternoon after following Baines through the London streets. Baines tells Phile it is to be their secret. Mrs. Baines suspects something is afoot and tells Baines she is going to her mother’s house for a couple of days. After she makes a production of leaving, she sneaks back into the house to lay a trap for her husband and his lover.
A death occurs in the aftermath of the discovery of Baines affair. Phile believes Baines is responsible but doesn’t want to get him into trouble. He wants to do whatever he can to protect his only friend so he lies to the police about what he knows. Baines, not wanting to look like he was having an affair, does some lying of his own. Because the death occurred in the home of the French ambassador, things escalate rather quickly.
A word about the child actor who plays young Phile: I’ve read many a person complain that Bobby Henrey ruined the film for them, while others said they loved the movie except for kid. I don’t get it. I think the actor did a fine job as Phile. His scenes with Richardson are nothing short of wonderful. The two relate to each other so naturally, their scenes come off as the two having a genuine affection for each other. Yes, Baines is telling the boy lies with his stories and manipulating him to keep secrets but he isn’t trying to do the boy harm. Richardson, for his part, is outstanding as the butler and all around manager of the house. It’s clear he’s stuck in a marriage with a woman he can’t stand so he tries to find love and affection elsewhere.
Cinematographer Georges Périnal’s black and white photography is gorgeous. He worked on another wonderful film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp for Powell and Pressburger. Carol Reed work is fantastic here. He is one of my favorite directors. He followed up The Fallen Idol with The Third Man. What a one-two punch!
I don’t see this film mentioned very much when people discuss the greatest British films ever made when, really, it should discussed. If you haven’t already seen this, please seek it out. It was put out by Criterion on DVD several years ago but it's currently going for close to $100. There are Blu-rays out there but most are not for the North American market. The film is available for rental via Amazon Streaming service for only $2.99.