Fallen Idol
"The Fallen Idol is overshadowed by Reed and Greene's The Third Man but is in many ways a precursor for the later film, not least in visual terms."

The Fallen Idol is a tale of misunderstandings as seen through the eyes of a child. The friendship between an ambassador's lonely son (Philippe a.k.a. 'Phile', played by non-professional Bobby Henrey) and the embassy butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), falters when the child becomes privy to adult goings-on but lacks the maturity to comprehend the situation that unfolds. In the absence of his parents, housekeeper Mrs Baines (Sonia Dresdel) wields malicious control over the routine of the young boy, a point of commonality between he and Baines, who feels similarly restricted. Scenes in the basement kitchen when Phile joins the pair for meals show a relationship that vibrates with swallowed resentment and barely hidden contempt.

When Phile inadvertently follows Baines to a rendezvous with embassy worker Julie (Michèle Morgan), the butler believes that he must both deceive the boy (he allows Phile to think that Julie is his niece) and enlist him to keep a secret - or rather, to omit to tell Mrs Baines about Julie's presence. Baines fails to appreciate that Phile will not predictably behave like an adult - and the boy does not actually understand what is being hidden from the butler's wife - and is therefore a loyal but unreliable confidante. So subtle is the film's balance of (mis)understanding and (mis)perception that the boy will give the game away by using the wrong pronoun. But the upshot is that Phile will continue to misinterpret what he sees and Baines will continue to mistakenly believe that what his young friend observes can do no harm to him and Julie.

Copy picture

The first of three collaborations between Carol Reed and Graham Greene, The Fallen Idol was based on one of Greene's short stories - The Basement Room. In adapting his story for the screen Greene changed its emphasis. Whereas he originally had the child witness a crime but try to protect his friend, in the film the audience knows that what happens is an accident - but Phile misinterprets what he sees, and his attempt to cover up a non-existent crime risks the freedom of the butler. The final third of the film builds in suspense as Phile persists in unwittingly implicating Baines to the investigating detectives.

Reed was a director who loved actors and their faces - close-ups are used both to convey heightened emotional states - as seen when Phile is woken by an agitated Mrs Baines - and tension, for example, when two of the detectives are held in close-up in the foreground so that their profiles frame Baines in the background. He also seems to have been particularly patient with children - something that he would put to good use with Oliver!. Reed draws on Henrey's natural behaviour - the small gestures and mannerisms that seem to belong to the boy rather than the character - to present a realistic depiction of childhood and a child's experience of the world and, in conjunction with Richardson's performance of easy camaraderie with the child, they create a believable relationship at the heart of the film.

The Fallen Idol is overshadowed by Reed and Greene's The Third Man but is in many ways a precursor for the later film, not least in visual terms. Reed's love of Dutch angles is on full display here, notably in a brilliantly dynamic sequence where Phile plays hide-and-seek with Baines and Julie in the embassy after hours, and the pursuit of Harry Lime through Vienna's streets and sewers owes something to Phile's panicked scramble through the backstreets of nighttime London. But the lightness that characterises even Reed's darker work is also present - there are some great moments of humour in the half-heard conversations between the embassy cleaners (Dandy Nichols and Joan Young) as well as Phile's interactions with a streetwalker (Dora Bryan) at the police station ("Oh, I know your Daddy!").

Overall, The Fallen Idol is a post-war production deserving of greater recognition.

Reviewed on: 16 Nov 2015
Share this with others on...
The Fallen Idol packshot
A butler working in a foreign embassy falls under suspicion when his wife falls to her death and the only witness is a child.
Amazon link

Director: Carol Reed

Writer: Graham Greene, Lesley Storm, William Templeton

Starring: Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel, Bobby Henrey, Denis O'Dea, Jack Hawkins, Walter Fitzgerald, Dandy Nichols, Joan Young, Karel Stepanek, Gerard Heinz, Torin Thatcher, James Hayter, Geoffrey Keen, Bernard Lee

Year: 1948

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


Search database:

If you like this, try:

Odd Man Out
The Third Man