Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Fallen Idol’

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The Fallen Idol, a collaboration between Graham Greene and Carol Reed, opens in Berkeley on Friday

Well, I may as well go for the hat trick. Having written about both The Third Man (1949) and Our Man in Havana (1959) in the past year, I really should take advantage of an opportunity (or an excuse!) to review 1948’s The Fallen Idol, the first of writer Graham Greene and filmmaker Carol Reed’s three cinematic collaborations.

Despite its two Academy Award nominations (one for Greene’s screenplay, another for Reed’s direction), The Fallen Idol is arguably the least remembered of the trio — at least in the United States (it continues to enjoy a higher profile in the UK). A newly restored print screens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas beginning Friday, June 3.

Set primarily in a late Georgian townhouse in deepest Belgravia (one of London’s most expensive neighborhoods and home to many of the capital’s foreign embassies), The Fallen Idol tells the story of an unusual relationship between the son of a diplomat and the loyal family retainer. French-born, English-raised 9 year-old Bobby Henrey plays the youngster Phillipe; Ralph Richardson, Baines the butler (whose first name remains, appropriately, unspoken).

Because the pater familias spends a great deal of time away from home on government business, Phillipe has adopted the servant as a substitute father figure. Baines enjoys the role, using it as an excuse to embellish his own life story, but his wife (Sonia Dresdel) is less of an enthusiast — not least because Phillipe’s pet snake is an upsetting (dare I suggest Freudian?) presence in the house.


Indeed, the Baines’s marriage is not a happy one. Baines is carrying on with embassy secretary Julie (Michèle Morgan, still with us today at 96!), and after young Phillipe espies them during a brief teashop encounter he inadvertently reveals all to his nemesis.

An argument ensues; Mrs. Baines falls to her death through a window. Though the fall was accidental, young Phillipe thinks Baines pushed her, and decides that by lying to the police he will be doing his best friend a favor. Police Inspector Crowe (Denis O’Dea) sees right through the youngster’s untruths, however, and Baines is soon in very hot water indeed.

Based on his own short story, Greene’s screenplay carefully balances Phillipe’s point of view with those of the omniscient adults around him. Blissfully unaware of how grown-ups will perceive his tall tales, Phillipe compounds Baines’ problems with absurd lies — all the while believing the man whom he admires so much really has committed the very worst of crimes.

Third Man cinematographer Robert Krasker often gets credit for that film’s noirish atmosphere and Dutch tilts, but both elements are also present here, suggesting Reed was just as active in camera set-ups and lighting as his DoP’s. The Dutch tilts render a game of hide and seek most discomfiting, while a scene of Phillipe running through the night is reminiscent of Richard Widmark’s desperate escape in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950).

Though neither as amusing as Our Man in Havana, nor as entertaining as The Third Man, The Fallen Idol remains an insightful and finely crafted film. If you’ve never seen it before, this is a great opportunity to rectify the situation.


Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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