By Michael Wilmington
Tribune movie critic
Of all the movies that try to take us into the mind and viewpoint of a child, Carol Reed's 1948 "The Fallen Idol," adapted by Graham Greene from his short story, is one of the most ingenious. Reed and Greene show us the world as perceived by a foreign ambassador's sensitive, imaginative 8-year-old boy--and also the more complex world as it really is.
Shot from tilted angles and deep perspectives that turn the diplomat's London embassy into a sometimes sinister palace and London into a sunny paradise by day and a noir realm of terror by night, the movie shows how the boy, Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), sometimes sees things awry. And it also reveals how the lies Phillipe tells everyone as a result of those errors may ultimately destroy the man whom he idolizes: the embassy's efficient, warm-hearted butler Baines (Ralph Richardson).
Baines treats Phillipe like a pal and calls him Phil. Phil, in turn, worships Baines for his hearty, fatherly manner and his exciting (and utterly false) tales of his adventures in Africa. Despite the havoc he wreaks, Phil only wants to help Baines--who is unhappily married to the embassy's tyrannical housekeeper and is having an affair with a young embassy typist named Julie (Michele Morgan).
Instead, the boy unintentionally reveals the affair to Mrs. Baines, who is later killed when she spies on them and falls down a huge staircase--an accident that Phil mistakenly believes was a murder by his hero Baines. Defiant, Phil worsens things further, trying to protect Baines by lying to the police investigators: granite-jawed detective Ames (Jack Hawkins), steady detective Hart (Bernard Lee, "M" in the early James Bond movies) and the skeptical Inspector Crowe (Denis O'Dea). Every fib Phil tells only seems to dig the grave deeper for Baines. He becomes his idol's worst nightmare.
"The Fallen Idol" was the first screen collaboration between Reed and Greene. And though they made only two more together, 1949's "The Third Man" and 1960's "Our Man in Havana," they have to be called one of the great movie writer-director teams. Greene's sense of realistic suspense and gloomy Catholic morality in a flawed, dangerous world is fully served by Reed's keen eye and taut, beautifully controlled direction. When you watch "Fallen Idol" (or "The Third Man") there's never any sense of dissonance between these two creators; they seem perfectly matched. It's a pity they didn't make more films together.
"Fallen Idol" has always been ranked highly, despite a plot change that could have proved fatal. In Greene's original story, Baines actually was guilty. Here, he's innocent, because Reed and Greene thought it was necessary to retain audience sympathy. I think they were wrong. A "Fallen Idol" in which the fundamentally decent Baines--who is played by Richardson, that most eminently likable of the great British stage and film actors--is guilty and in which he must cope with the horror of the boy unintentionally exposing him, could have been closer to tragedy. It might have been an even more compelling thriller and film.
But "Fallen Idol" is a classic despite the change--which, actually, is exactly the kind of movie compromise and "wrong man" plot twist about which ex-film critic Greene always complained in the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Reed's picture, shot by Georges Perinal, is a visual stunner. It also contains near-perfect acting by everybody (including Dora Bryan of "A Taste of Honey" in a bit as a streetwalker) and an astonishing job by 8-year-old amateur Henrey--whom, assistant director Guy Hamilton ("Goldfinger") insisted, had no talent, but whom Reed coaxed brilliantly into a memorable performance.
Despite its fame, "The Fallen Idol" has long been in the shadow of "The Third Man," whose reputation continues to grow. But Greene and Reed's first film deserves better. As a portrait of the sometime destructiveness of innocence and as a sharp fresco of post-war Britain, this movie is a little masterpiece, an idol that has never fallen.
'The Fallen Idol'
Directed and produced by Carol Reed; written by Graham Greene, based on his short story "The Basement Room," additional dialogue by Lesley Storm, William Templeton; photographed by Georges Perinal; edited by Oswald Hafenrichter; art direction by Vincent Korda, James Sawyer; music by William Alwyn. A Rialto Pictures release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:35. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for mature themes of adultery and violence).
Baines - Ralph Richardson
Julie - Michele Morgan
Phil - Bobby Henrey
Mrs. Baines - Sonia Dresdel
Detective Ames - Jack Hawkins
Detective Hart - Bernard Lee
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