Neglected Classic Films: ‘The Fallen Idol’

Film

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.

16 comments on “Neglected Classic Films: ‘The Fallen Idol’”

  1. snowy says:

    ! Oh a handy springboard for a question to all the smart film people knocking about !

    Four years earlier Carol Reed had directed ‘The Way Ahead’, a propaganda piece throughout but the direction lifts it above the merely functional. It is the story of a rag-bag of ordinary men, thrown together and how they train together bonding together as a group before facing the challenge that will test them.

    [The same plot furnishes, ‘Carry On Sergeant’, ‘The Dirty Dozen’, ‘Full Metal Jacket’ etc. ]

    Was this the first film to use this plot, or can somebody point to something older?

    Thanks in advance, etc.

  2. Paul C says:

    I like Fallen idol but prefer Odd Man Out which is allegedly Roman Polanski’s favourite film. The cut glass accents in Fallen Idol are very dated. American films of the same era seem less dated as their accents and dialogue still seem current.

    There are some parallels with an American film called The Window made a year later based on a story by the great Cornell Woolrich (see Mr F’s Forgotten Authors). Both centre on a boy who witnesses a possible murder.

    Graham Greene also wrote an excellent short horror story (surprisingly) called A Little Place off The Edgware Road. Well worth seeking out.

  3. Derek J Lewis says:

    Snowy,
    Oddly enough it was Carol Reed (and writers Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov) who made first made it as ‘The New Lot’ in 1943. Then expanded this short (to include officers) in 1944 as ‘The Way Ahead’
    The ever excellent ‘Talking Pictures TV’ sky 328 has shown ‘the New Lot’ recently in an Imperial War Museum season

  4. snowy says:

    Thanks Derek, I did know about ‘The New Lot’, [it features Ian Fleming*], but because it was an internal Army training film and not given general distribution it doesn’t quite match what I’m looking for. [The question is quite a puzzler! I have a vague notion the first might have been American and was about pilots, but I could be quite wrong – happens a lot that.]

    The IWM have quite a lot of strange stuff, among them an 18 minute short explaining how to locate and kill an enemy sniper, [and then having done so how to best display his corpse to draw in more enemy soldiers to kill. Voice over by Marius Goring]

    [* Before and during the War the person most famous as ‘Ian Fleming’ was an actor, the man who would become ‘Ian Fleming’ the author, was then working in the Admiralty in a job his mother had arranged for him. He couldn’t join the Army, as he had already been kicked out of Sandhurst for misbehaving.]

  5. Roger says:

    “the story of a rag-bag of ordinary men, thrown together and how they train together bonding together as a group before facing the challenge that will test them.”
    There are quite a few books with that theme from WWI, Snowy, The First Hundred Thousand was one of the first, in 1915. That one doesn’t seem to have been filmed, but there may be others.

  6. Dawn Andrews says:

    I’m faithful to The Third Man, which is one of my Top Ten. A film that puts a wicked twist in the tail of the all boys together getting trained to murder complete strangers theme is the very odd and slyly titled Private’s Progress by the Boulting Bros. Not early but very cynical, in a good way.

  7. snowy says:

    Not sure if this mystery is solvable, but currently all roads lead to AQotWF 1930.

  8. Dawn Andrews says:

    Roger, great link thank you, didn’t know Harry Lime was based on Kim Philby, fascinating background. For a minute there I thought you might be one of my old art tutors, Dawb indeed! I got that one in the neck in crits more than once, back in the day!

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    Snowy I’m thinking the same thing, possibly about the volunteers who went to China to fight Japan before the US entered the war, can’t remember the film though. I know Cagney did a few pilot films, not sure if ‘Captains of the Skies’ counts, he plays a Canadian in the RCAF. He is in a WW1 based film as a soldier The Fighting 69th which starts of at camp in the US, he does the selfish and cowardly smart alec who comes good after being under fire and not faring so well. The US did quite a lot of these, following the same clichés,

    It is a splendid film, and it’s a shame Reed didn’t make more films, Oliver! shows he could still make memorable films even toward the end of his career.

    Wayne

    PS I went to post this last night before your post Snowy, but lost the internet connection, seems a shame to waste it even if All Quiet maybe it. There was the silent The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse which made Valentino, with a family on both sides of the war, there is quite a build up to the war.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Snowy – Those pilots were known as the ‘Flying Tigers’ and flew Curtiss P-40 ‘Tomahawks’ against Japanese forces. The aircraft carried Chinese markings, and ‘Tigermouth’ insignia on the noses. I understand that they were paid in gold for each verified kill. They were amalgamated into the USAAF, following the events at Pearl Harbor.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Following on from my last comment, I went and had a look at my model kit stash, and I have three different ‘Flying Tiger’ P-40’s. One has a decal for the tailfin of the aircraft, which has the delightful image of a figure urinating on the Japanese flag on it. It is from a real aircraft, of course.

  12. Dawn Andrews says:

    The Four Horsemen is an awesome film, in the true and fullest sense of the word.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    I am reminded by my in-house specialist that the Flying Tigers wore leather jackets that had a silk map as lining and some of the jackets had Chinese characters printed on them saying “I am an American. I am helping you.” They were led by Gen. Claire Chennault. There was a movie called “The Flying Tigers”. After the war there was a freighting airline called Flying Tigers and Ken suggests there may have been a link between them and the CIA.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I could not, for the life of me think of the man in charge of ‘The Flying Tigers’. Your mention of the slightly dodgy nature of the ‘Flying Tiger’ freight company, makes me wonder if it was a precursor to the later, and definitely dodgy ‘Air America’, run by the CIA.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    My in-house specialist says he thinks the one may have morphed into the other but then again they may have been two separate entities. Air America was certainly run by the CIA (and then employees of the American State Dept. wonder why they are always being suspected of being spies. v Dan Turrell Under Deep Bachground passim)

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