Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Fallen Idol (1948) -- Carol Reed

The Fallen Idol is a film about secrets, and lies and their consequences, and people hiding behind curtains eavesdropping. Baines (Ralph Richardson) is the efficient butler at a foreign embassy in London. His is a loveless marriage. The ambassador's son, six-year old Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), adores the man, staring in wonder at his tall tales of his time in Africa where he supposedly killed a black man who charged him with a spear. When Phillipe asks if it was murder, Baines explains it was an act of self-defense.

Baines feels a kinship with the boy; like himself, Phillipe is lonely. At one point he shares some advice, telling Phillipe "it's a great life if you don't weaken."

The boy's mother has been away sick, and the father is undoubtedly too busy to give his son much attention. As the film opens the ambassador leaves for a few days to retrieve his wife, apparently from a hospital or a sanitarium. In the giant diplomatic mansion, Baines is the boy's only friend, and hence his idol.

Mrs. Baines (Sonia Bresdel) is an unhappy woman. We don't know why, but she and her husband have lost any feeling they had for one another somewhere along the way. She is mean to both Baines and Phillipe, chiding her husband for spoiling the boy. A strict disciplinarian, she allows Phillipe no fun.

The first secret is revealed to us as from his balcony high above the street, Phillipe spies Baines leaving the embassy. Mrs. Baines has previously refused to allow Phillipe out of the house for a walk in the park. Phillipe sneaks out, using the outside fire-escape and races after Baines, who has a head-start. The boy finally spots his friend in a small cafe, sitting with a pretty woman. This is Julie (Michele Morgan), who serves a clerical function at the embassy.

In a beautifully acted and subtle scene, Baines and Julie are in hushed conversation. Phillipe has startled them. Baines tries to divert the boy's attention by giving him a pastry. They pretend they are talking about a "friend" of Julie's who is about to make a decision--she is leaving tomorrow on a boat, convinced that there is no hope for happiness with the man she loves, who is married. They are of course, talking about themselves.

Julie and Baines are startled in the cafe.

The dialog here is terrific, and the awkward glances and frustration of Richardson and Morgan perfect. It's clear the two lovers are feeling great sadness. Baines borrows Phillipe's handkerchief to dry Julie's eyes. The acclaimed novelist Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, based on his short story, The Basement Room. Lesley Storm and William Templeton are credited with additional dialog.

The two adults part, with Julie promising to meet Baines again tomorrow. He tells her that he will talk to his wife that night. Baines tells Phillipe that Julie is his niece, and asks him to keep the meeting a secret from Mrs. Baines.

The relationship between butler and the boy is a touching one, best shown in a simple but important gesture by Baines. Phillipe has come to the basement, the butler's quarters where Baines and Mrs. Baines will soon share breakfast. His pet garden snake is safely in hand. Phillipe normally keeps the reptile behind a loose brick on his balcony, knowing Mrs. Baines would not allow such a dirty creature about. He asks Baines for a box to keep it in. When Mrs. Baines arrives she rebuffs the boy's desire to go outside for a walk in the park. Angry, Phillipe tells her he hates her and she banishes him to his room. As he goes to leave, Baines discretely pushes the box with the snake across the table so the boy can take it without his wife seeing what he's doing. 

Later, the snake comes into play again to acutely contrast the character of man and wife. Mrs. Baines finds it behind the brick. Disgusted, she wraps it in a towel, and passing Phillipe on the stairs, she ignores his apology for his earlier hard language before she stuffs the towel into the fiery stove.

Director Reed and the writers include an earlier scene that reveals how different these two adults are when it comes to their feelings for the boy. Mrs. Baines can't abide his lying. Baines is untroubled, saying:

Baines: There's lies and lies.
Mrs. Baines: What do you mean by that?
Baines: Some lies are just kindness.

Philippe hides his snake.

Like any child, Philippe is easily confused; and when Mrs. Baines finds crumbs on his shirt, she scolds him about eating between meals. When questioned, he says "they" instead of "he" gave it to me. Now suspicious about what her husband has been up to, and with whom, she concocts a scheme to catch him in the act. She pretends to visit a relative the next day, and Baines takes the opportunity make a day of it with Julie and Phillipe. They go to the zoo. Some nice editing takes place here as the camera cuts back in forth between Phillipe looking at the animals and calling for Baines to join him, and the two lovers, off to the side in whispered conversation. They all  return to the embassy for a picnic on the patio and a game of hide and seek, unaware that Mrs. Baines is hiding in the house. And she has set Baines' mind at ease by leaving a false telegram, supposedly sent from out of town indicating she won't be home for a few more days.

When all is later quiet, she slips out of her hiding place to confront Phillipe, asleep in his bed. When he is unable to tell her, she gets angry and slaps him. Baines hears the ruckus and comes out of a bedroom to intervene. Shocked to find his wife, who's now hysterical, he must forcefully stop her from confronting Julie. For a few moments they wrestle at the top of a long winding marble staircase. She calms down a little and he asks her to go downstairs where he will meet her shortly.

Phillipe's viewpoint through the window.

All the while Phillipe has seen the struggle through a window, standing on the fire-escape outside. He climbs down to the next level to what will happen next, momentarily losing sight of the action. As Baines disappears back into the bedroom, apparently to explain the situation to Julie, Mrs. Baines walks out on a narrow ledge with potted plants to see if she can enter the bedroom from another direction. When she opens a window she loses her balance and falls to her death at the bottom of the staircase just as Phillipe has re-positioned himself below. To his eyes, it seems as if Baines has knocked her down the staircase.

The best part of the film follows the arrival of police and their investigation. They are quietly efficient, yet disquietly menacing. Richardson is terrific here. Baines is in shock, and we can easily imagine his mixed emotions. On the one hand he feels guilt at his wife's death.

Baines: There are faults on both sides, Phile. We don't have any call to judge. Perhaps she was what she was because I am what I am. We ought to be very careful, Phile. 'Cause we make one another.
Phillipe: I thought God made us.
Baines: Trouble is, we take a hand in the game.

A chalk outline at the bottom of the stairs. 

On the other hand he must feel elation that he is now free to pursue life with Julie. But he foolishly tries to keep her out of it, rushing her away before the police arrive, and lies about his wife--lies he retracts under questioning. All in all, to the police, he paints the picture of a confused murderer. The position of the body and nature of injuries are evidence that she did not slip on her own. Complicating matters further is Phillipe. The police overhear him asking Baines "if like Africa, this was self-defense?" And he lies too, even convinced his idol did kill the woman. He tells Baines: "We've got to think of lies and tell them all the time. And then they won't find out the truth."

The story and Richardson make it easy to sympathize with Baines. We can see the panic slowly build in his face. Caught in his own deception, it looks bleak indeed. The end comes far too quickly, prompted by a tell-tale footprint.

The film's title, of course, refers to Baines. But the "fallen idol" is not so much from Phillipe's point of view--he still loves his friend. Rather it refers to Baines' opinion of himself. He must see himself as something of a lesser man, no longer the hero he likely thought himself to be for the boy. If so, it is too harsh. After all, he is merely human, not above a little lie for kindness. 

Richardson's next role would be his best film appearance: as the hard father to Olivia de Havilland in the remarkable The Heiress (1949). For his work there he'd receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The Fallen Idol was sandwiched between two other memorable Carol Reed films: the stylistic Odd Man Out (1947) with James Mason, and the great The Third Man (1949). He was a three-time Oscar nominee for Best Director: The Fallen Idol, The Third Man, and the 1968 musical, Oliver, for which he won. His collaborator here, Graham Greene, would also receive a nomination for Best Writing.

Director Carol Reed.
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