Like the title character, Judge Bill Gibron feels that director Carol Reed as been the inadvertent victim of some slapdash critical considerations. He hopes that this stellar version of his 1948 suspense masterwork will finally turn the scholarly tide.
When the hero takes a fall…
As a director, Carol Reed is known more for a few select films vs. his overall body of work. Though he started his career in the mid-'30s, it wasn't until the late '40s when a trio of efforts—Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man—secured his place in British cinema. Eventually winning an Oscar for his outrageously entertaining adaptation of Lionel Bart's brilliant take on Dickens, Oliver!, Reed remains an enigma, a hard-working journeymen who managed the occasional bout of grand artistry along his four-decade journey (he died of a heart attack in 1976 at the age of 69). Anyone familiar with the director's canon understands this all too well. For every classic moment where Harry Lime reveals himself out of the shadows or the Artful Dodger sings and dances his way through an unusually squalid Victorian London, there are entire films with Reed's directorial signatures that go by unnoticed and under-appreciated. Though fans of the filmmaker would balk at the suggestion that The Fallen Idol is one of his forgotten gems, it is fair to say that more people recall late in life spectacles like The Agony and the Ecstasy or his collaboration with author Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana. Oddly enough, Greene was also responsible for "The Basement Room," the short story upon which Idol is based. Now thanks to Criterion's masterful presentation of this timeless title, new generations can appreciate what longtime devotees have already understood. Idol may very well be Reed's best.
Facts of the Case
Phile—short for Philippe—is the young son of the French Ambassador to Britain. He lives in a huge house that functions as both an embassy and a domicile. While his father is away on business and his mother recuperates from a long illness in the hospital, Phile is left in the charge of the servants. He adores the butler Baines; a kindhearted man with a twinkle in his eyes, the valet appreciates Phile's inquisitive nature and shameless sensitivity. But the boy does not like Baines' brute of a wife. Dictatorial, mean, and highly suspicious, the Missus makes life intolerable for both of the males in her life. One day, desperate to get out, the lad escapes the foreboding manor and runs into Baines at a local teahouse. The butler is having an intense conversation with a girl from the embassy's typing pool and Phile is curious about the meeting. Baines tells him that the girl, Julie, is his "niece" and that he mustn't tell Mrs. Baines about the rendezvous. Unfortunately, Phile is not very good at keeping secrets, and it's not long before a tragedy occurs as a result of the tawdry triangle. But the question then becomes who is guilty and who is innocent. Phile may be able to clarify things, but he's afraid of condemning his friend. After all, in the eyes of a small boy, death is one thing. But a soon-to-be Fallen Idol is everything.
Hero worship is an understandable human trait. After all, life provides us with so many burdens that to revere another who seems to have all the answers, or at least provides hope that there are indeed resolutions out there, gives us the necessary will to continue on with the fight. This is especially true in children. Lacking the experiences that mold and manage maturity, they are almost always lost in a fog of their own naiveté. Like the simpleton satellites they are at first, they tend to gravitate towards those who they feel can protect and guide them. Usually, said individual is a person with a demeanor of authority and reserve. They appear calm and prepared, ready to address any situation that the child feels could literally swallow them whole. As reliance turns into reverence, the preparation begins for the inevitable fall. Sometimes, the tumble is gradual, learned internally over time and interaction. In other circumstances, the plummet is predicated on a single incident or idea—a misunderstanding, a glimpsed lack of control, or some unexplainable deed that defies godliness. It's in these moments where life delivers its most devastating lessons. It demands one apply some personal perspective, and it suggests that the carefree days of youth are about to end.
Though there is a lovers' triangle at the center of the storyline, the relationship most important in Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol appears initially to be between overworked butler Baines and dotty diplomat's son Phile. It is hero worship meshed with just a small amount of parental guidance and guardianship. Baines, represented by British legend Ralph Richardson, and Phile, as found in newcomer Bobby Henrey, create a partnership important to understanding the entire unsettled dynamic of this superb suspense-laden thriller. Told almost exclusively from the vantage point of the child and given to moments of haunting beauty, the movie's narrow focus and streamlined story make Idol an indelible entertainment. We enjoy learning the ins and outs of the French Embassy—the snotty cleaning crew, the haughty assistants to the Ambassador. The set designs are equally remarkable turning a typical multi-story mansion in the swankiest part of London into a labyrinthine maze of mysteries. From the moment we meet Phile, his head thrust between the slats of one of the home's many elaborate stairwells, we understand immediately that this will be a film about perspective. What we see, what we know, and, more importantly, what we don't witness and can't understand will be the cornerstones of everything Reed the director is striving for. And it all is premised on the relationship between servant and master's son.
Reed goes for a realistic approach in dealing with Phile. Many films cast their narrative around children, but then go on to make the mistake of having the kids be too intelligent or too in tune with the emotions surrounding a situation. Because his parents are so distant, because he has lived in a world surrounded by keepers and intermediaries, Phile has become lost and on his own. In his world, Phile finds solace in freedom, the connection to animals (including a pet snake MacGregor), and the closeness and comfort he senses in Baines. He doesn't understand that this older man is suffering inside. He only realizes that his best pal's wife, an insufferable shrew walking close along the borders of madness, hates almost everything he, Phile, stands for. To her, he's a rotten spoiled brat who has been raised to be disrespectful, demanding, and devil-may-care. Some may argue that the most important adversarial relationship is the predicament between Mr. and Mrs. Baines, or better yet, Mrs. Baines and her husband's lover Julie. In reality, it's how the horrible harpy interacts with Phile that marks Idol's most important narrative pairing. He is the catalyst for all the confusion in the household, and she is the specter who constantly reminds Phile that adult things are happening throughout his innocent juvenile realm.
It's the notion of innocent lost, of growing up and understanding the pressures of age that's the central theme of The Fallen Idol. Even the title suggests the shrugging off of heroes, and the eventual loss of imaginary playmates. Certainly there is an undercurrent involving lies, truth, and cheating, but it too sets inside a grander statement about the end of childhood. There are many moments throughout Idol where Reed lets Phile fall, over and over again. He does so when he sees Julie and Baines in the teashop. It happens again when MacGregor goes "missing." Another moment has Mrs. Baines sweet-talking the lad into divulging information, while still another has her swaying over his bed, wild-eyed with jealous rage, hoping to get answers to her suspicious questions. As a result, it's the backwards connection between Phile and Mrs. Baines that makes up the mantle of this masterful movie. What happens between them, from a dinner-table battle of wills to a telling moment of physical abuse that impacts the remaining narrative and sets the eventual tragic gears in motion. It's not any threat to him that causes Baines to act; it's the long simmering showdown between his sinister spouse and the household's only child that forces his more or less emasculated hand.
Ralph Richardson is outstanding here, especially when you consider the complicated role he is required to essay. Baines must be simultaneously alert, genial, alive, dead, disheartened, sad, angry, ineffectual, smitten, lost, and mildly menacing. He has to juggle the authority of the entire household, the constant nagging of his worthless wife, an unrequited love with a gal he cannot possess, and a boy who believes literally everything that comes from his mouth. There's a wonderful moment when Richardson and Henrey are discussing a murder that Baines supposedly committed while in Africa. As the boy presses for details, living vicariously through his adult friend's adventure tale, Richardson is resigned and preoccupied, unable to keep the fictional facts straight. Every misstep is met with a question, and Baines manages to repair any damage to his unreal reputation in Phile's eyes. It illustrates their relationship perfectly—needy, circumstantially abandoned child and faux father figure who can't quite live up to the status he's created for himself. It's a perfect tragic teaming—a boy constantly climbing and a man laying the flimsy foundation from which he will eventually descend. It's how those events play out that becomes Idol's interesting dynamic, and Reed and Greene don't disappoint.
Reed was definitely a director with an eye for spaces. He allowed his lens to languish over his elaborate sets and locations in order to give the viewer a proper sense of the area before letting his actors exist within it. When Mr. and Mrs. Baines have their stairway confrontation, we've been given so many views of the area that we sense how massive—and how dangerous—it really could be. Similarly, when Phile makes his late-night escape to avoid the confrontation between the adults, we've already traveled down the fearsome fire escape before. During the day, it looked like an exit to excitement. But in the darkness of a dead English night, it takes on a solid, sinister import. It's a technique that Reed will employ throughout the rest of Phile's journey. Shown only as a small shadow against the backdrop of deserted London streets, child actor Henrey is turned into an icon of youth afraid and unsure. When he ends up in a local police station, his tiny stature becomes a perfect point of reference. He gets lost in an oversized coat (and later, a doctor's blanket) and seeks refuge in the bosom of a blousy prostitute. All the while, we see Phile vanishing into the reality of the world outside the estate, being absorbed by the truth that he never had to deal with—until now.
In the end, what we get is a startling suspense thriller with moments of great joy and harrowing sorrow. We get to witness a world completely foreign and obscure, yet still filled with the kind of kitchen sink intrigue we expect from much lower-class considerations. Reed complicates matters by making all his characters flawed, from Baines's interpersonal ineptitude and loose temper to Julie's desire to defend her man at any and all costs. Even Mrs. Baines is a battleaxe with a soul, though it seems vanquished by an internal pain that forces her to brutalize and blame. All of this gets processed through Phile's unprepared eyes, and the results are disturbing and direct. Locked in his landscape of ascending/descending stairwells, magnificent balcony vistas of London's old-world wisdom, dark foreboding hallways, and streets loaded with shadows too deep for any child to navigate, he looks up to Baines as his ballast. With a world full of individuals dismissive of such a pesky, precocious brat, Baines represents everything missing in his life—father, strength, honesty, and goodness. All of that is shattered one night when deception drives people unprepared for its consequences to acts both disturbing and defendable. Through the hero-worshiping eyes of a boy, it's all an unwelcome wake-up call he is ill prepared to participate in. But he must. Now that his idol has fallen, he has nothing left but himself.
Fans who, up until now, only had fuzzy, foggy VHS versions of the film to contend with have real reason to rejoice. Criterion has delivered what has to be one of the best monochrome images of its long career in film remastery. The occasional contrast flickering cannot be helped in the digital domain, and since it's in service of such a stellar black-and-white 1.33:1 pictureboxed transfer, we gladly accept the minor defects. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 has been cleaned up magnificently. There is no hiss, no distortion or tinny treble. There is a distinct lack of bass and other bottom elements, but for a movie made 60 years ago, that's to be expected. As they have done throughout their tenure as film archivists, Criterion creates a definitive technical package that will definitely make fans and film buffs weep.
As for extras, there is a documentary centering on Reed's career as a filmmaker. Featuring many friends and admirers (including director John Boorman and actor Ron Moody), this 2006 dissection of the man features some interesting insight. While it covers other efforts by the filmmaker (Oliver!, Third Man, and Odd Man Out all get equal time with Idol) it's the material about his work on this film that's the most fascinating. In fact, we learn that young Bobby Henrey was such a misbehaved child that members of the crew felt he had the attention span of a "demented flea." Yet Reed recognized this flaw and found ways to guide him toward the performance he wanted. Similarly, Reed's personal life suffered for his art. We are told that when his wife arrived on set, he would barely acknowledge her presence, instead focusing on the work at hand. At almost 25 minutes, this contextual discussion doesn't take the place of a commentary (Criterion can provide some excellent scholarly tracks), but provides the kind of insight we expect from such a presentation. Add in a few other features—filmography, gallery, booklet with essays—and you've got a perfectly prepared and presented film package.
As the motion picture manifestos are determined and drafted, here's hoping that room can be found for Reed's The Fallen Idol. Usually the late, great filmmaker is tucked in somewhere among his fellow Englishmen Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, allowed a single entry regarding The Third Man and left at that. Even his Academy Award-winning version of Oliver! is discounted as being a blight, especially when critics consider that Reed beat out Stanley Kubrick (for 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Gillo Pontecorvo (for the brilliant The Battle of Algiers) for the Best Director statuette. Such shortsighted slams are not his fault, however. They should be blamed on a system that demands an annual determining of "better" and "best." In the case of Carol Reed, much of his oeuvre is good. Some of it is grand. But when it comes to great, it's time to broaden the discussion to include The Fallen Idol. No other coy crime-based thriller has as much magic and imagination as this singularly sly cautionary tale. Whether he knew it or not, Reed was setting the standard for all such films to follow. It's no surprise to see that very few have. It's hard to improve on perfection, and if there is one thing a viewer learns upon revisiting this forgotten fragment of Reed's canon it's that The Fallen Idol is flawless. It's a remarkable motion-picture experience.
Not guilty. This amazing masterpiece deserves all the accolades and attention it can get.
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Scales of Justice
• "A Sense of Carol Reed," 2006 Documentary
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