Scripted by Graham Greene from his novella, The Basement Room, Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is the first of three collaborations between one of Britain’s finest filmmakers and one of Britain’s greatest writers, a partnership that most famously would lead to The Third Man the following year. This fruitful collaboration between writer and filmmaker pushes The Fallen Idol towards making two very bold statements in its opening act, introducing two very different elements each loaded with significance – a snake and a gun. One is weighty with literary symbolism, the other equally as potent in dramatic terms. Having introduced these items, the film rather successfully keeps the viewer guessing as to their significance. The snake has many connotations - kept hidden behind a brick in the wall outside his bedroom window by a young boy, it can suggest temptation, loss of innocence or a dangerous secret. The gun, kept hidden in a drawer by the butler Baines – well, Chekhov’s dictum indicates that, having been introduced in the first act, it must be fired by the end of the film, but who fires the weapon, and who will be on its receiving end are by no means clear.
Quite apart from the contrasting approaches of suggestion and action that these elements uncommonly bring together, the method by which their purpose is revealed is not at all as clear-cut as would be expected. And therein lies the greatness of Carol Reed, who previously raised Odd Man Out (1947) and subsequently The Third Man (1949) from what would seem like straightforward thrillers and imbue them with a far more complex sense of moral ambiguity than would normally be contained within this genre of filmmaking. Like those films, The Fallen Idol relies on a marvellous sense of location to evoke this – it is not just framed to be pictorially elegant, but as with post-war Vienna in The Third Man and Belfast in Odd Man Out with their skewed perspectives and shadowy contrasts an evocation of the moral upheaval and the crisis of an uncertain population thrown into mistrust of the authorities, so too Fallen Idol’s vast vestibule of the embassy, with its chessboard-like chequered floor descended to via a sweeping marble staircase represents the complex and sophisticated adult world that a young boy is struggling to comprehend.
Philippe (Bobby Henrey) is the son of the French ambassador in London, and while his father is away on business, the young boy is left on his own in the grand embassy building on Belgrave Square, where he find himself caught in the middle of an intrigue between Mr Baines (Ralph Richardson), the butler who he admires and looks up to, and his wife, the head housekeeper Mrs Baines (Sonia Dresdel). Escaping from the confines of the house one day in search of his idol, Philippe witnesses a secret meeting at a tea-shop between Baines and a young housekeeper Julie (Michèle Morgan). Philippe is charged with keeping the encounter a secret, but this is a difficult task to keep hidden from the prying and enquiring Mrs Baines, who has become suspicious of her husband’s behaviour. As events unfold, Philippe witnesses the horrifying consequence of the affair, and loses faith in the man he has always admired.
Looking down from his vantage point at the top of the stairs on the events played-out in the adult world below, Philippe is an innocent who doesn’t understand the finer points of all the complicated double-talk, hidden meanings and secrets he is asked to keep. Keeping secrets for both Mr and Mrs Baines, he is confused as to where his allegiances should lie when there is a conflict of loyalties, since, although he doesn’t like Mrs Baines, he has been told that no-one’s confidences should be revealed. His presence in this adult world subsequently becomes a nuisance element, one who climbs onto window balconies and knocks over flowerpots, one who adults refuse to take seriously, and one who can’t reconcile what he thinks he has seen with his own limited experience, and consequently is unable to recognise the subtle distinction between murder, self-defence and accident.
The same sense of moral ambiguity is played out throughout the film in many different and subtle ways. Baines’ story of being in Africa where he killed a black man he claims in self-defence introduces the question of whether there is ever moral justification for killing, and how far we can trust what a person tells us. But it’s even there in a simple incident when Philippe meets a prostitute while at the police station, who claims she knows his father. Although it is played for laughs, the implication is again of secrets being kept - particularly between men and women – on a level beyond the young boy’s comprehension. Although not photographed by Robert Krasker this time (the cinematography here is by Georges Périnal), many of the visual motives that bear out the same techniques that link The Fallen Idol in between the other two films in this thematic trilogy of films by Carol Reed – most notably and thrillingly a headlong flight down darkened streets, full of shadows and light, where a figure lost in a maze of moral doubt is looking for a means of escape or answers, only to end up facing the judgement of the law.
The Fallen Idol is released in the US by The Criterion Collection. The disc is encoded for Region 1 and is in NTSC format.
The Studio Canal logo at the start of the film would suggest that the transfer on this edition of The Fallen Idol is from the same source as the existing Region 2 editions. It’s perhaps not quite as strong as other Criterion releases, but it still presents a very fine image. There is a slight flicker in the image, a hint of grain in some scenes and some slight edge-enhancement visible. Movement is not quite so smooth and there is one skip of a couple of frames in the scene where Mrs Baines spots Philippe on the window ledge. These are all relatively minor issues however in an otherwise impressive transfer of a clean print that has excellent clarity, sharpness and detail with excellent brightness, contrast levels and fine greyscale tones from the solid blacks to the clean whites. There is a long tramline scratch for a reel or so, but it is only faintly visible after the restoration that has no doubt taken place. There are few other marks of any kind. The transfer, as with Criterion’s current policy on Academy ratio films, is regrettably window-boxed.
The film is largely performed naturalistically, with fine performances from all the cast – Richardson in particular is exceptionally good – which means that not every word is perfectly enunciated in an actorly manner and words often whispered, mumbled and sub-vocalised. With the audio track being slightly on the dull side, the soundtrack suffering slightly from low-level crackle commensurate with the age of the film, the dialogue can be a little difficult to make out clearly in places. Generally though, there are no actual problems with the sound, which for the larger part adequately captures the tone of the film.
Optional English captions for the Hearing Impaired are provided in a fine white font for the film. Extra features however are not subtitled.
Extras are not plentiful on this particular Criterion release, but those included are all worthwhile and informative. A Sense of Carol Reed (24:01) is a short documentary on the life and work of Carol Reed, focussing inevitably on his famous three films made between 1947 and 1949 - Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, as well as the spectacular Oliver! (1968). Interviewing colleagues, collaborators and friends, there is a brief look at Reed’s family background, but more on the characteristics that make the above-named films so enduring, in particular his method with actors and children. Showing domestic and international posters for all Reed’s films, where they are available, the Illustrated Filmography is certainly an interesting way to cover his career in film. The Press Book is a fine extra, presenting archive posters, press release information and advertising blocks for the original release. The usual booklet, beautifully illustrated with promotional stills, also makes for interesting reading, presenting a variety of information, essays and thoughts on the film. ‘Through A Child’s Eye, Darkly’ by Geoffrey O’Brien looks at the view of the adult world the film depicts from a child’s perspective; in ‘From Story To Screen’ David Lodge compares the original story with the film script (this article was reprinted recently in The Guardian and can be read here); ‘An Enchanted Moment’ by Nicholas Wapshott covers the making of the film from Reed’s personal life at that creative high-point in his career.
It might not have the show-stopping, scene-stealing of Orson Welles, nor the same sense of post-war moral disillusionment on the grand scale of the incomparable The Third Man, but The Fallen Idol’s novella-style approach tackles a similarly complex situation from the view of an innocent looking on a world where the moral values are not as clear-cut as one would wish them to be. Criterion present the film about as well as could be expected, with a fine transfer and informative if not extensive supplemental material.