The Fallen Idol (1949)
The Fallen Idol (1949)

Genre: Drama and Mystery Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.

Release Date: November 15th, 1949 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Carol Reed Actors: Ralph Richardson, Michele Morgan, Sonia Dresdel, Bobby Henrey, Denis O’Dea, Jack Hawkins, Walter Fitzgerald, Dandy Nichols

 


 

A

prestigious ambassador’s (Gerard Heinz) grand embassy bustles with servants, official guests, and attaches. Young son Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) spies the goings-on with great delight from upstairs, watching with particular interest the routines and formalities of head butler Mr. Baines (Ralph Richardson), who runs a tight ship with a twinkle in his eye. Shrewish Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) is stricter and less fun, keeping after the ambassador’s son, scolding and scaring him regularly with her harshness, and taking away the candy he secreted in his pocket – in between henpecking her husband.

Half of the staff is gone for the weekend, along with Phillipe’s father, leaving the mischievous boy to entertain himself with a tiny pet snake (named MacGregor) and by spying on the various household occupants. At one point, he sneaks outside and down the street to a tavern to follow Baines, whom he discovers at a local cafe, sitting with a pretty but sullen woman named Julie (Michele Morgan). The two adults attempt to have a private discussion about their complicated relationship, but the boy interferes with their clandestine meeting.

It’s instantly amusing to see the dour, adult matters clash with the innocent, naive perspective of the little blonde-headed boy. “Isn’t it exciting, Baines?” cries Phillipe after he’s asked to keep quiet about the afternoon rendezvous. With convincing acting from the child, who proceeds to eavesdrop on the marital strife, misinterpreting things and betraying confidence while gathering additional knowledge, the plot becomes something of a mystery, again presented from the viewpoint of immaturity – entirely unable to comprehend the significance and severity.

“It’s going to be a long day, Phile.” Baines entertains the boy with wild stories of his adventures in Africa, all while stalling until he can meet up with Julie again. Although the youth is in the way, he maintains a unique intrusion into the melodrama, repeating snippets of conversations and construing phrases with a nearly comical literalism. There’s time for shenanigans, but an encroaching sense of confrontational conflict plagues the levity; Baines’ happiness is doomed to be entangled with his wife’s bitterness. And then, in a somewhat Hitchcockian twist, that same, childish point of view is forced to act upon a misperception, which might irreparably harm the idol he seeks to protect.

“Will somebody take this child away.” Fascinatingly, Phillipe’s trust in men over women eventually shifts when Baines suddenly becomes a source of fear; it’s a striking examination of trust, truth, self-preservation, and the impressionable nature of children in the face of confusing tragedy – and the intimidating qualities of adults. The script (by Graham Greene, based on his short story) is sensational in presenting these ideas, managing to be alternately thrilling, romantic, and hilarious. It’s all quite moving and nerve-wracking – and believable.

Plus, there’s an unmistakable suspense in knowing what actually happened (the audience gets to see more than Phillipe does) and how incomplete information can lead to frightful assumptions. And the tiny details, such as a lost paper airplane, generate striking sequences of anxiety – again taking some pointers from Hitchcock’s works. Likewise, the conclusion boasts the tension of police interrogations and boy-who-cried-wolf jitters in the best possible way. “It’s obvious somebody must be lying.”

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10