The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1948)

Ugh, there’s no worse kind of kid than a precocious kid.  Actually, I shouldn’t even call little Phile from “The Fallen Idol” precocious, ‘cuz he isn’t.  He isn’t overly-smart for his age (in fact, he’s unusually impressionable and naïve), and certainly isn’t mature: he’s just an inquisitive, annoying kid who doesn’t understand the extraordinary circumstances occurring around him. Bobby Henrey had zero acting chops, even as a seven or eight year old, and much of his delivery is awkward, shrill and mistimed.  I was irritated by the little brat, but one thing he was, in addition to all those things, was youthfully ignorant, and if anything, that awkward acting or line delivery that’s the telltale sign of an inexperienced child actor furthered that sense of youthful ignorance that’s key to elevating “The Fallen Idol” above any other average mystery/thriller. 

A year before Carol Reed and Graham Greene were bold in transforming postwar Vienna into an existential wasteland worthy of T.S. Eliot in “The Third Man,” they were nearly as bold in telling an otherwise ordinary ‘is he or isn’t he a murderer’ mystery story almost entirely from the point of view of that naïve child.  As the privileged yet ignored child of an important diplomat, we feel little Phile’s loneliness thanks to the very impressive yet overly-spacious set design of that giant house, and the cinematography that somewhat exaggerates the size of those halls and rooms even further.  Our introduction to the Butler, Baines, is as the kindly father figure who regales Phile with make-believe stories of adventures in Africa (which Phile of course takes at face value) and sneaks the boy treats between meals, much to the consternation of the bitter Mrs. Baines.  Phile adores him, and in turn (and also thanks to an excellent and sympathetic performance by Ralph Richardson), so do we.  When Baines leaves the house one day for a secret meeting with his lover Julie, we don’t get the backstory of their relationship, we find out about the affair in the midst of a conversation that takes us a while to pick up on – because it’s from Phile’s point of view, when he follows Baines to that coffee shop and walks in on them mid-conversation.  Phile thinks that Julie is Baines’ niece, which of course we know not to be true, but still, we only catch little snippets of their secretive conversation, the snippets that Phile catches, so we’re nearly as naïve about the true nature of their relationship as Phile is.  

In a similar vein, we only get a hint of the marital strife between the easygoing Baines and the strict and viciously jealous Mrs. Baines, because we only see it through Phile’s eyes, such as when he eavesdrops on Baines’ asking for a separation from the top of the stairs – Phile can’t understand the nature of such a discussion, and that’s emphasized by the high angle point of view shot as the two seem a mile away in that (artificially?) huge basement.  And to that effect, Mrs. Baines herself, to we the viewer, is exactly the cruel tyrant that Phile sees her as, not only because of Sonia Dresdel’s particularly snide (and fun to watch) performance, but because of those little ways that Reed shows her to us through Phile’s eyes, like in a particularly startling shot when Phile wakes up in his bed, and her face, twisted and wide-eyed in wild jealousy of her husband and Julie, encompasses the entire screen – you can understand why Phile’s terrified.  Also, pay attention to the gloriously suspenseful sequence in which Baines boldly brings Julie to the house for dinner when he believes his wife is away for a few days.  We know that Mrs. Baines is there the entire time after she swears poor Phile to secrecy earlier, just as Baines swore the kid to secrecy about Julie (poor kid, getting used like a ragdoll…), and indeed as Baines prepares dinner, and then he, Phile and Julie play a manic game of hide and seek as Baines playfully fiddles with the lights, we can see doors creak open, or legs that may or may not be Julie’s as Phile hides beneath the table, or a curtain move ever so slightly as if somebody’s watching from behind it.  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and they don’t come more scornful than Mrs. Baines, which makes you worry what this cruel and jealous woman plans to do, and which corner she might be around, and if or when she’ll emerge from the shadows.  A wonderfully suspenseful and atmospheric sequence.

Of course, a death eventually occurs, of course the kindly and unassuming Baines becomes a possible murder suspect, and of course Phile witnesses the incident and doesn’t quite understand what he saw.  What follows is a long stretch in which the police question first Baines and then Phile, Baines runs down what happened, Phile tells one lie after the next, and lots of people exchange lots of inquisitive looks.  You’d think that’d be an absolute bore (except for the search for and flight of, believe it or not, a vitally important paper airplane which MUST not fall into the wrong hands, in a scene of quiet suspense that nearly puts Hitchcock to shame), but against all expectation, I was actually at the edge of my seat most of, if not the entire, time.  You know the whole time what really happened (unlike Phile, though…perhaps the only time in the film you’re completely in on something that he isn’t), and you want everything to turn out alright for Baines, but that becomes more and more unlikely as all parties involved become more and more entangled in their own web of lies: Baines lies about Julie and pressures Phile to do the same, and Phile lies about just about everything, and not very convincingly at that.  I think such seemingly mundane scenes concerning police questionings and recreations of the incident were so gripping for me because of the unenviable position that Phile’s been put in: he wants to protect his best friend Baines, yet thinks he saw that best friend commit murder.  He’s too young to understand the relationships between Baines and Mrs. Baines and Julie, nor what he saw that night, and he doesn’t understand how much trouble his lies are causing, or whether he should tell the truth or protect his friend, or even under which circumstances he should tell the truth, and nothing but.  Quite a position for a kid to be in who’s only worry a day earlier was hiding his pet snake from the mean Mrs. Baines. 

Of course “The Fallen Idol” is all about the loss of youth and innocence, as embodied by both Phile and his ‘idol’ Baines, and even though the kid’s performance left something to be desired, that youthful innocence and ignorance, and the very complex and adult situation that tarnishes that innocence, made this all the more gripping, from the impressive low-angle shots of those intimidating adults talking about confusing things, to the genuinely tender words between Baines and Julie, who clearly love each other, but are nevertheless rarely seen by us unless little Phile is within earshot.  The desperation and lust and love and sheer emotion of Baines and Julie and Mrs. Baines is palpable, yet still feels distant when you realize it’s all seen from that playful, inquisitive kid’s eyes.  A scorned wife and an attempt by a husband and his lover to be free of her, and the tragic consequences of such?  Nah, that’s been done a million times, and why worry about the problems of grown-ups when the nice butler who gives you cookies and takes you to the zoo and tells you about his fun and wild adventures in Africa is in trouble, and only you can save him, and none of those mean adults will listen to you?


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