The Fallen Idol
|Sonia Dresdel||Mrs. Baines|
|Directed by||Carol Reed|
Sir Carol Reed is largely forgotten today, but he was one of the great directors of the English-speaking cinema. He was the first British director to be knighted. He won an Oscar and was nominated twice more. And in one breathtaking stretch in the late ?40s he made three classic thrillers that equal or better the best of Hitchcock. They are Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), and The Third Man (1949). If Sir Carol had stuck with the genre, he might have entered the language as an adjective: instead of Hitchcockian, we might have Reedy.
But Reed believed that repetition dulled the craft, and he branched out into material as diverse as Oliver! (his Oscar-winner), Trapeze, and The Agony and the Ecstasy. Still, it is probably on that trifecta of thrillers that his greatness rests.
The Fallen Idol is one of Reed?s memorable collaborations with author Graham Greene (with The Third Man and Our Man in Havana,) and it was Greene?s favorite of the film adaptations of his work. Long unavailable, it has recently been restored and reissued. It tells the story of Phil (Bobby Henrey), the son of a French-speaking ambassador in London, and his idolatry of the embassy?s British butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson.) Phil is alone much of the time in the cavernous embassy. His mother is away at a sanatorium, his father is usually occupied or absent, and his only friends are Baines, and his pet garden snake, Macgregor. Phil?s nemesis is Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), who doesn?t much care for either of his friends.
One day, forbidden by the forbidding Mrs. Baines from a promised afternoon walk with Baines, Phil follows the butler when he goes out, and finds him in a tea shop having an intimate conversation with Julie (Mich?le Morgan), an embassy typist. Though Phil doesn?t understand much of what the grown-ups are talking about, his knowledge of their meeting is a danger to the lovers, and Baines asks him to keep it their little secret.
Secrets in the hands of an eight-year-old are fragile things. Phil does his best to lie to the relentless Mrs. Baines, but she worms enough slips out of him to confirm her suspicions. She then swears him to secrecy, and as Baines and Julie later assure him, a secret is a secret, and must be honored whether you like the person or not.
In an early scene, Baines remarks to his wife that ?some lies are just kindness.? The lies that Phil tells to try to protect Baines, first from his wife, and later from the police when a sudden violent death in the embassy puts his idol under suspicion of murder, are motivated entirely and passionately by kindness. So are the lies Baines tells to shield Julie, or the lies he tells Phil to entertain the lad with adventure yarns of his swashbuckling exploits in Africa. But innocent or guilty, the lies all weave together into a tightening noose around the neck of Baines.
Reed and Greene are interested in the child?s point of view, and the catastrophic dangers posed by uncritical, leaky innocence. The marble staircase between the levels of the embassy is vast and menacing. Little Phil peers through the railing down on the adult world from his perch on the top floor, observing the comings and goings through the great entrance hall. With its wide expanse of black-and-white tiles it resembles a game board, and the adults are like game pieces that move across it. And Reed connects it all in a brilliant cinematic stroke when a paper airplane containing damning evidence glides slowly, slowly down the stairwell to settle at a detective?s feet.
Henrey can cause a bit of a headache with his hyperactive enthusiasms, but Reed knows what he?s about, and that quality pays off in a deliciously tense twist at the ending. The director is said to have shot close-ups of the child watching a magician perform to capture the look of rapt adoration that he turns on Baines. Morgan is lovely, and shows a vein of grit that makes her character more interesting than she might be. As Mrs. Baines, Dresdel is brimstone and ice mixed with an artificial sweetener. And the smaller roles are filled with such pros as Jack Hawkins and Bernard Lee as soft-spoken Scotland Yard detectives, and comedienne Dora Bryan as a hooker who gets one of the film?s best lines ? ?I know your father!? ? when she learns who Phil is.
But it is the incomparable Richardson who commands the film?s attention. With a wink of an eye, a jaunty smile, a weary slump of the shoulders, eyes like a trapped bird, he conveys a great human decency only slightly undermined by human flaws.
The camerawork by cinematographer Georges P?rinal captures Reed?s trademark dark alleys and glistening cobblestones, the low tilting angles and the intimidating spaces, the contrasts of light and shadow that distil the gathering menace. Reed spins the story with wit and suspense, and creates one of the classic thrillers.
© Text 2006 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be