Neglected Classic Films: ‘The Fallen Idol’
Director Carol Reed has a biography worth checking out on a more specialist site than this; his story is a fascinating one. In 1947 Reed started a hot run, with three hits in three years, beginning with the IRA drama ‘Odd Man Out’, then ‘The Fallen Idol’ and finally ‘The Third Man’, which even Orson Welles’s misbehaviour was unable to damage.
The middle picture remains the least known, but is in many ways the most perfect. It has now been remastered and is available in a terrific new print. Produced by Alexander Korda and written by Grahame Greene, it’s a miracle of economy. Reed’s maxim was, ‘Find a story you believe in. Tell it with speed.’ For a slow-burning psychological suspense film with only four main characters and one basic location there is not one wasted moment, not one scene that could be trimmed.
It achieves this economy by compressing its information in ways that only a master director can do. In London’s French embassy – technically foreign territory, a crucial plot point – nine year-old Philipe spends his life watching the grown-ups below in the great black and white tiled reception hall. His father the ambassador is mostly away on business, and his French mother has been in hospital in France for eight months.
It’s hardly surprising that Baines, the embassy butler (Ralph Richardson) should become a kindly father figure who makes time for the lonely boy. Countering him is his wife, known only as Mrs Baines, who restricts and bullies the child. Her motivation is left open to speculation.
Philipe becomes a party to a secret he can only share with Baines, and when tragedy strikes he tells lies in his hero’s defence. But Philipe does not understand the adult heart, and with a child’s innocence makes the matter worse.
It’s a film about how we see and who we trust, and contains several set-pieces that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock film. Mrs Baines is a more modern Mrs Danvers, and her outbursts shatter the embassy’s silence. For a suspense film, there are extraordinary silences, with just the clip of shoes on marble to disturb the soundscape.
And seeing London in 1948 is a revelation; not the East End of bomb sites and cheery costermongers, but the unharmed elegant quarters of embassies and mansion houses and wide empty streets that still feel oddly local. Countering the tensions among the upper echelons are two charladies and Dora Bryan as a cheery prostitute.
One of the film’s cleverest tricks, which the critic Ryan Gilby reveals in his Blu-Ray liner notes, is a scene in which the boy runs down an outside fire escape, glimpsing the action inside the embassy, and how it plays like a strip of film with missing frames.
The sheer clarity of ‘The Fallen Idol’ should encourage you to seek it out. Clarity of intent, of visuals, of plot and dialogue, that too many filmmakers have forgotten.