The Fallen Idol

February, 2006, Mystery

Directed by:Carol Reed

Starring:Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey, Michèle Morgan, and Denis O'Dea

Fallen Idol

New York City's Film Forum has done it again; it has brought back a long-overlooked British masterpiece by Carol Reed, director of pre-Technicolor thrillers such as The Third Man & Odd Man Out.  He sandwiched this little gem in between those two and its reappearance after 58 years should prompt lovers of the genre to go to the nearest video store or scour Netflix to see it. 

Phillipe, the impressionable, only-child of France's ambassador to The Court of St. James, spends a weekend at the embassy in London under the care of Baines, the butler and his particularly nasty wife. The ambassador has gone to collect Phillipe's mother from an 8 month convalescence following a serious illness and during that absence, Phillipe has grown completely attached to the gracious Baines, who calls the boy by his diminutive and tells him tall tales about adventures in Africa which the awe-struck child takes quite literally. But when he follows Baines across a park to a small restaurant mid-way through a rather dull weekend, Phil discovers that his idol has a secret life. Now confidences must be kept and the distinction between telling the truth and remaining loyal to a friend draws the wide-eyed innocent into an increasingly dangerous game which evolves like a frightening metastasis, engulfing not only his beloved Baines and the latter's conniving wife but an attractive French secretary and finally the police, called to the residence to probe a mysterious death. As Baines and Phillipe struggle to shield each other from danger, the respective stories they tell serve only to entrap them more and more firmly in a very dangerous game…

Working from a short story and original script by Graham Greene which poses some probing questions about the nature of truth and the obligation those in authority have to inculcate, by example, that virtue in youngsters, Reed charts the passage of a young innocent into the not-so-laudable land of adult behavior. The result is an exciting, poignant and downright nerve-wracking 95 minutes, delivered with crisp economy.  

As Baines, Sir Ralph Richardson has one of the most attractively engaging roles of his long career. The soul of professional gravity in his role as major domo in the embassy, he's warm and delightfully casual around his young charge, managing to do what W. C. Fields warned could never be accomplished; avoid being upstaged by an adorable kid.

As Phillipe, Bobby Henrey fills the screen with sunshine; curious, innocently naughty and full of irrepressible energy, he's an elegantly dressed and perfectly mannered Huck Finn, eager to uncover every aspect of the adult world which encases his rather solitary life amid the large rooms and extensive staff which comprise his father's workplace. (Henrey's a bit of a mystery; this was his film debut and there followed a second role three years later. Since then - nothing. Had he come of age during the era of T.V. sitcoms, he'd have been a smash.) Henrey makes Phillipe the perfect blend of youthful mischief and painful vulnerability without ever striking a false note. The outstanding work of the two leads is perfectly underscored by the work of a wonderful supporting cast, many of whom have gone on to enjoy significant careers in the theatre and on film.

Reed's stunning black and white cinematography prefigures The Third Man, with its sinister cobblestone streets glistening with late night rain and vertigo-inducing cinematography. Reed repeatedly employs strikingly deep shots, working from above and below a massive staircase in the embassy without every losing the dramatic flow of his story, or the rapt attention of his audience. The result is a film that's both nervously engaging on an emotional level and thrillingly sophisticated on a visual one as well. 

That latter quality may well be lost if you're forced to see this wonderful film in your home rather than in a theater, but don't let that note of caution dissuade you; big screen or small, there's just too much quality here to pass up. The creators of today's bloated, frenetic, overlong thrillers could learn a thing or two by watching this perfect example of form and content.

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