FOR a brief but dazzling three-year period, from 1947 through 1949, Carol Reed was the director to beat in the English-speaking world. Two films of that period, "Odd Man Out" and "The Third Man," have been widely admired, but the third, 1948's "The Fallen Idol," has been more difficult to experience.
Now, thanks to the excellent work of reissue specialists Rialto Pictures, that missing link in Reed's career can reclaim its place. Out of print on videocassette and unavailable on DVD, "Idol" begins a one-week run at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles in a new print that proves it's as compelling as the films that came before and after.
Like "The Third Man," "Idol" has the advantage of a script by Graham Greene based on his own fiction, in this case a short story the writer considered "unfilmable." But the trio of Greene, Reed and producer Alexander Korda — not to mention an expert cast toplined by Ralph Richardson — turned a story involving adult secrets and childhood fantasies into a classically well-made film that is both unexpected and exceptionally gripping.
As "The Third Man" admirers can testify, impeccable construction, psychological acuity and moral complexity are the hallmarks of Reed's films from this period. In "Idol," a terrific amount of emotional tension is added to the mix, a sense of possible impending doom that bespeaks a film that knows what it is doing and how to do it.
Richardson plays Baines, a butler who makes one of London's enormous foreign embassies run like a top. The film opens late on a Friday afternoon, with the busy ambassador leaving for the weekend to bring his wife, who's been recuperating from a serious illness, home for the first time in months.
We are introduced to Baines through the eyes of the ambassador's 8-year-old son, Phil (Bobby Henrey), a young man who, in the absence of parental attention, has taken to idolizing Baines. (Director Reed, ever crafty, got the appropriate admiring look on young Henrey's face by filming him watching a magician doing tricks.)
Baines enjoys the boy's admiration and clearly has a soft spot for children, but there is something about him, something about the way he says "some lies are just kindness," that gives the character an intriguing air of moral relativism.
Much easier to understand, though not to like, is his wife, the authoritarian housekeeper Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), a spiritual sister to the sinister Mrs. Danvers of "Rebecca." Her spiteful presence gives the film one of its signature qualities, its sense of impending doom, the anxious notion something is going to happen and it's not going to be good.
Completing the picture is Julie (Michele Morgan), a typist at the embassy, whom we glimpse from afar, as does the boy, bidding a brief Friday afternoon goodbye to Baines in a way that gives a hint of attachment that might go beyond the professional.
That glimpse is at the heart of "The Fallen Idol," which is very much about the gap between what children see and think they understand versus the reality of a more complex and more complicit adult world. All this is beautifully played out in what should have been a quiet weekend in that near-empty embassy.
Helping with "Fallen Idol's" disturbing air are the odd, unsettling angles cinematographer Georges Périnal used at the enormous London mansion (owned by the British Red Cross) with a huge staircase and a disconcerting checkerboard-patterned entrance hall that was the film's prime location.
The best part of this picture, however, is the performance of Richardson, an actor not enough celebrated these days. His quietly insinuating voice and brilliantly equivocal presence makes a marvelous impression, so good that it seems appropriate to give him the last word.
According to the Rialto press kit, Richardson had this to say near the end of his life: " 'Fallen Idol!' What a wonderful, economical film — 90 minutes, so tight, a perfect little film. Our films today are all so long." That pretty much says it all.
"The Fallen Idol"
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Rialto Pictures release. Producer-director Carol Reed. Screenplay, story by Graham Greene. Director of photography Georges Périnal. Editor Oswald Hafenrichter. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Exclusively today through Thursday at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.