Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Carol Reed is honored for The Third Man yet is curiously under-celebrated by the same traditionalist critics that dote on David Lean. Both were hot-ticket English filmmakers in the late 1940s, and more mainstream than the eccentric artisans Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Fallen Idol is a brilliant murder thriller told from the point of view of a sheltered young boy, one who easily gets the wrong idea about what he sees. It's a shrewdly moralistic, complicated 'Boy Who Cried Wolf' story that investigates the way children and adults misinterpret and misunderstand each other.
Young Phillipe, or Phile (Bobby Henrey) is left with the servants while his father, the French Ambassador (Gerared Heinz) leaves for Switzerland to retrieve his ailing wife. That's okay by Phile, as he loves the company of the embassy concierge Baines (Ralph Richardson), who teases and amuses the small boy with needed attention and tall tales. All would be well were it not for Baines' wife (Sonia Dresdel), a harsh and bitter woman convinced that Phile is a bad boy in need of discipline, and that her husband is not much better. Phile sneaks out of the embassy to follow Baines and discovers him meeting embassy worker Julie (Michèle Morgan) on the sly. Too young to know what's going on, Phile becomes a confused observer when Baines takes advantage of his wife's weekend trip to have Julie over for dinner.
Graham Greene and Carol Reed's collaboration began with The Fallen Idol, a thriller that presents a completely different set of problems than their acclaimed The Third Man. Excepting young Phile's lone wanderings into the London neighborhood, the action is confined to the interior of the embassy with its grand hall, upstairs living quarters, kitchen area and basement. Saying that Reed covers the film from a boy's point of view doesn't refer to a low camera angle or the idea that we don't have access to information Phile doesn't know. We follow Phile and observe all that he sees and hears, but we're constantly comparing his reactions to our own. Phile is inexperienced, naive and uncomprehending of much that happens around him. He thinks he's getting away with hiding his pet snake, never realizing that Mrs. Baines is quite capable of feigning ignorance to get the goods on both him and her husband.
Phile is brutally honest in his reactions, as exuberant in his enthusiasm for Baines as he is certain that Mrs. Baines is wicked. Phile says "I hate you" to Mrs. Baines at the dinner table and means it. Phile's mother may have been recovering in Switzerland for months and for now the Baines'es constitute a substitute family. Phile isn't yet sophisticated enough to realize how unhappy they are.
The masterful performance in The Fallen Idol is by Ralph Richardson, who in place of his usual larger-than-life characters gets a chance to play a likeable but ordinary and somewhat sad man. Baines registers spirit when dealing with Phile, but also a great deal of regret. His face falls in resignation at his wife's cruel reprimands. He has a new girlfriend to whom he can offer nothing, as he could never sever his marriage and keep his job as a trusted manager of servants.
The actual 'whodunnit' aspect of the story is cleverly worked out so that the key violent event is (mis) interpreted by all that examine the evidence. The violence is linked to the physical layout of the embassy: Stairs, a window, a narrow ledge. It's not unlike the emphasis on mechanical details in Alfred Hitchcock movies.
If the stories of the filming of The Fallen Idol are to believed, the actors working with young Bobby Henrey are to be commended, for director Reed had to coax and tease a performance out of a boy simply unsuited for acting work. Henrey had the perfect look and manner -- the typical trained English child actor would have been useless -- but he also had a short attention span, became bored easily and wouldn't follow directions. According to assistant director Guy Hamilton, Bobby would burn up thousands of feet of film looking in the wrong direction or departing from character. Much of Henrey's performance is pasted together from bits of takes brilliantly edited to create a wonderful natural portrait of a charming child. Reed must have had an enormous respect for children to maintain the patience needed to get the film he needed.
Reed's love of kids is given more exercise in the half-comedic episode when young Phile is found wandering in the streets in his pajamas. Policeman Torin Thatcher and floozie Dora Bryan become a third pair of potential parents, and turn out to be the kindest and most comforting guardians of all. Reed would further extend his affinity for working with children in his later A Kid for Two Farthings by Wolf Mankowitz.
The Fallen Idol is unique as a thriller in that we see Baines' fate being determined by a jittery game of chance associations and perceptions. Little Phile witnesses only part of a violent occurrence, which he only later distills into a (wrong) conclusion. Forever being urged to tell the truth, Phile comes out with a steady stream of unreliable information that confuses and frustrates the no-nonsense policemen played by Denis O'Dea and Jack Hawkins. When Phile strives to falsely exonerate Baines, he almost seals the poor man's fate. In a curious development, the entire law enforcement establishment appears to be equally as blind and confused as little Phile.
The ending 'solves' the problem of the story the way many life issues are resolved: Things suddenly change. We're still wondering exactly what the resolution to the mystery means, and what will happen, when Phile's parents return. With his mother back in the house and his attention turned to family affairs and schoolwork, Phile will have less time to spend with Baines. The 'idol' of Phile's daydreams may fade entirely, or maybe Phile will someday suddenly remember Baines, and be convinced that he grew up with a murderer. It's a fascinating human story. 1
Criterion's DVD of The Fallen Idol is a picture perfect presentation of this handsome B&W film. George Perinal's cinematography makes the embassy interior look like a giant chessboard or an arena for a modern role-playing game. William Alwyn's music is clearer here than in earlier video versions.
For a knighted film director, Carol Reed was decidedly less celebrated than his contemporaries, perhaps because of a few career stumbles in the early 1960s when more flamboyant directors garnered more attention. The only older extras on the disc are some press book reproductions and a poster gallery. Compensating mightily is a new documentary called A Sense of Carol Reed in which surviving collaborators like Guy Hamilton comment on Reed's work with Graham Greene, and what made the director so special. A lot of time is given to the film's difficulties with little Bobby Henrey. The kid is so charming in the movie that it's a big surprise to find out that working with him was one long and frustrating ordeal.
A fat insert booklet has essays from Geoffrey O'Brien, David Lodge and Nicholas Wapshott; Amazon erroneously lists Graham Greene's original short story among the extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fallen Idol rates:
Supplements: 2006 documentary A Sense of Carol Reed, IIllustrated Reed filmography, Original press book, Insert booklet with essays by Geoffrey O'Brien, David Lodge, and Nicholas Wapshott.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 5, 2006
1. The Fallen Idol may have inspired the filming of Ted Tetzlaff's The Window of the following year. Never as naturalistically convincing as Reed's film The Window nevertheless works up considerable tension when a tenement kid witnesses a murder but cannot get any of the adults in his life to believe him because of his habit of telling fibs.
1. From Correspondent David Rayner, a different (and compelling) opinion about The Fallen Idol and child actors, November 10, 2011:
I read your excellent review of The Fallen Idol and, as the system on here won't allow me to start a discussion about it, I thought I would send my opinions to you in this email concerning the then eight years old Bobby Henrey and the remarks about him spoken by assistant director Guy Hamilton on the DVD extra "A Sense of Carol Reed", which I think were most uncalled for because (1) Bobby was not a professional child actor and had never been in a film studio before. (2) Bobby was only eight years old at the time and (3) Bobby is still alive aged 72 and may have been very hurt by what Hamilton said about him, that he "couldn't act his way out of a paper bag" and "his attention span was that of a demented flea" and so on.
If Bobby was as bad as Hamilton remembers him being, then why did Sir Alexander Korda, head of London Films, being so very impressed with Bobby's performance in The Fallen Idol, have Bobby sign a contract for a staggering (at that time) £30,000 to make three more films for the company between 1948 and 1951? Carol Reed and Korda had a very close working relationship and surely, he would have dissuaded Korda from doing such a thing if Bobby was as bad as Hamilton remembers.
It's quite possible that for the first few weeks of the unusual eight months long period of making the film, Bobby would have been very distracted by all the goings on in the studio and thus not paying attention, but would have soon got used to it. Okay, so all the scenes with Bobby in the finished film are of all the takes where Bobby got the acting and dialogue right...but he did get things right, even after many takes. If he had been as bad at it as Hamilton remembers, he would never have done anything right and would have had to be replaced by another boy early on in the shoot.
Then there is the myth that originated in a December, 1948, article about Bobby and the film in Life magazine, where it stated that the most dialogue Bobby could handle in one take consisted of fourteen words. The line referred to in this respect being: "Oh, I'll never let you down, Baines. Funny, isn't it, Julie working at the embassy and all this time she was your niece." Well, that's 23 words for a start and later on, Bobby has a much longer scene in Phillipe's bedroom where he has a conversation with Mrs Baines that has him speaking far more dialogue than that in one long take. It seems that someone at the studio at the time was telling lies to Life magazine.
Despite all the effort it took for Reed to get that wonderful performance out of Bobby, I don't think that Bobby was in any way as incompetent as Hamilton remembers him as being. Hamilton may have preferred an experienced and professional child actor who could have got everything right in one take and saved time and money on the production, but no one else could have played Phillipe as well as Bobby. He steals the film. It's his from start to finish.
We've all heard stories about boys being chosen from hundreds of others for a certain role in a film, but it was different with The Fallen Idol. When Carol Reed interviewed Bobby for the role, he knew instinctively that Bobby was it! He never saw another child. He didn't want a professional child actor who'd been to stage school and picked up bad acting habits there, he wanted a boy who had never acted before whom he could coax into giving a completely natural performance and by God, he was right. He had to work hard on Bobby, it's true...but it paid off. As someone once said, Bobby's performance as Phillipe is truly outstanding. Even to this day, its naturalism remains unparalleled. It's the great unpolished child performance of all time!
Best Wishes from David Rayner. England, UK.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson