Keep Your Eye on The Fallen Idol

A child's view of grownup games in classic British noir.

Eight-year-old Phil, one of the two main protagonists of Carol Reed’s 1948 film The Fallen Idol, lives in a grandiose mansion-sized embassy in London, where his father is the ambassador of an unspecified foreign country. As the film opens, the father is on his way to be with the boy’s ailing mother on the continent, leaving his son in the care of the staff. As an only child, Phil (played by Bobby Henrey) is quite a glum little cadet, often left to his own devices. No wonder his best friends are a butler and a pet snake. MacGregor the garter snake resides in a hole in the embassy’s outer wall. Baines the butler (Ralph Richardson), who knows how to put a smile on the boy’s face, minds the household along with his shrewish wife Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), who loathes snakes and mercilessly henpecks both Phil and her husband.

And so we find our way into Phil’s viewpoint, in which he sees and hears things that don’t always make sense. He’s a quiet and curious but obstinate boy — the type who’s always getting in the way, annoying at times, but determined to figure things out for himself because the grownups have little time for him. Aside from the patient Baines, Phil has almost no one to talk to, so when he gets the chance, he occasionally spills the beans. Nothing escapes him. He knows every nook and cranny of the mansion. But, as he eavesdrops on Baines’ casual but hushed afternoons-off relationship with the pretty blond Julie (French actress Michèle Morgan), an embassy employee, Phil’s observations begin to confuse him. He discovers the adult world, and it’s alarming. Things happen for no apparent reason.

The Fallen Idol is the first collaboration of director Reed and author Graham Greene, who together would go on to make The Third Man, everyone’s favorite Orson-Welles-in-Vienna-with-a-zither film, a year later. Based on Greene’s short story “The Basement Room,” the drama of Phil and his idol offers a fascinating sidelight on an author not usually known for paying attention to children.

Suddenly every event takes on a sinister new meaning for Phil, even the trip to the zoo (where Baines’ racism emerges in his stories of life in Africa). Georges Périnal’s cinematography, the cutting of film editor Oswald Hafenrichter, William Alwyn’s music score, and the spirited acting — down to the Scotland Yard detectives played by Jack Hawkins, Denis O’Dea, and Bernard Lee — conspire to color Phil’s misinterpretations of grownup games. Not quite “kiddie noir,” but damned close. We’re happy that Rialto Pictures is re-releasing The Fallen Idol. It plays Landmark’s Shattuck for one week only.


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