The Fallen Idol is not Carol Reed’s masterpiece, but it is an expertly crafted work of film. Almost a chamber play, it’s quite the opposite from what you might expect. For being made in 1948, it feels more modern than you’d expect. The cinematography by Georges Périnal is crisp, silver and modern – full of canted angles and ominous movements.
The story is based on a short story by writer Graham Greene (whom Reed also got The Third Man and Our Man in Havana from), titled The Basement Room. The basement room is where the butlers and maids live and work. The lead character is a little boy Phillipe who is the son of a diplomat and parents that appear to be non-existent. He idolizes his father-figure and “best friend” the butler, Baines, whom he believes to have been world-traveled and heroic. In reality, Baines has always just been a butler.
Baines is trapped in a loveless marriage with his wife whom appears to manage not only the servant staff in the house, but her husband as well. Soon the boy leads us to find out Baines is having an affair, a fact which his wife also dreadfully suspects. It drives her mad and she plots a way to uncover the truth.
She is a hatful woman, killing Phillipe’s pet snake and making his adolescent life miserable. When finally she catches Baines, his mistress and Phillipe in the act of a fun game of hide-and-seek in the dark mansion, she erupts into a tirade at the top of the massive, marble, winding staircase, physically fighting with Baines. At this point the boy runs away to hide and watch from a distance, but while he’s not watching Baines too leaves her to rant and rave, at which point she inadvertently kills herself in a chain of events that I’ll leave you to find out on your own.
It’s basically the perfect murder to be pinned on old Baines, and of course all that the little boy witnesses when he reaches his hiding place is the swift fall to her death. Now convinced that “the butler did it” he bursts from the house in the middle of the night in pajamas and courses through the dimly lit streets until he meets a police officer.
Interestingly, his initial shock and fright of what he saw and thinks has happened, doesn’t overshadow his loyalty to his best friend, and so he attempts to protect him. An effort which (aided by the fact that Baines makes himself more suspicious by attempting to cover up his affair) only drives the police to the conclusion that it was anything but an accident.
The best part about this film is the young boy’s performance. It’s so virtuous and pure. You can literally see how much effort Reed must have given to just getting the performance that he did out of him. There are some scenes where you can catch a glimpse of his mouth mimicking the lines that the other actors are saying, but for the most part Reed cuts around that. The best moment with the child is when he’s in the basement room having lunch with Baines and his wife, who is chastising him for something or the other. Phillipe says, “I wish you were dead,” in a moment of film that no other child actor has matched to-date.
The Fallen Idol is a brilliant film, but if nothing else — worth seeing for that scene alone.