Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Fallen Idol (1948)

(Image courtesy of

Been catching up a lot on stuff I've been DVR-ing off of Turner Classic Movies and I was pleased as hell to come across this Carol Reed gem, one of I've been meaning to get around to for quite some time.

The first of three collaborations Reed did in with novelist/ screenwriter Graham Greene, The Fallen Idol is one of those rare films that really nails how a child perceives the world around him. In this case, that child is Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), the son of the French ambassador to England. With his mother away, sick for months (Phile confesses he doesn't remember her all that well and his father visibly detached), Phile's surrogate parents at the embassy, Baines (Ralph Richardson) and Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) look after him.

All Freudian psychosexual undertones aside -- and there are plenty throughout Fallen Idol -- the film really works best at establishing Phile's loose (and malleable) grasp on morality. As Baines tells him, in the presence of Mrs. Baines, "There are lies and then there are lies."

This becomes all the more troubling for Phile when he stumbles upon Baines and his young lover Julie (Michèle Morgan), an embassy secratery. Baines insists to Julie that the child doesn't understand, and later secures a promise from Phile that he won't mention anything to the Mrs.

Reed, along with ace cinematographer George Périnal, turns the embassy into a dutch-tilted playground of wonder and, eventually, horror. As the little lies beget larger ones, Phile does all he can to surpress the doubt he begins to show toward Baines, the titular Idol of the film.

The final denouement, for all the build up, winds down a bit too quickly and tidily in contrast to the carefully sustained tension throughout the rest of the film. It's probably more the film's narrowed scope than its minor structural issues that have resulted in the film's relative obscurity to American audiences, especially in comparison to the next Reed/Greene collaboration, their pulsing masterpiece, The Third Man.

But where Fallen Idol cannot match The Third Man (performance, score, set pieces, Orson Fucking Welles) , its universal themes of truth, morality and shattered innocence may actually come out stronger without The Third Man's post-WWII frame of mind dating them. As always with Greene, nationalism still plays a role (there's quite a bit of French-British pull-and-tug, especially when language comes into the picture). However, it's more of a background motif to the foreground of a child's discovery of sin.

This one comes highly recommended, especially for any Hitchcock fans out there. Like his British contemporary, Reed understood the power of meticulous composition and the importance of air-tight pacing. He's not as flashy as Hitchcock, but at his best, no less of a filmmaker.

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