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FALLEN IDOL, THE (director: Carol Reed; screenwriter: from the short story The Basement Room by Graham Greene/Graham Greene/Lesley Storm/William Templeton; cinematographer: Georges Perinal; editor: Oswald Hafenrichter; music: William Alwyn; cast: Ralph Richardson (Baines), Michèle Morgan (Julie), Sonia Dresdel (Mrs. Baines), Bobby Henrey (Phillipe), Denis O’Dea (Inspector Crowe), Jack Hawkins (Detective Ames); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carol Reed; The Criterion Collection; 1948-UK)
“It’s a gripping mystery story involving adult secrets, childhood lies and betrayal as part of the human equation.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sir Carol Reed (“Odd Man Out”/”The Third Man”) bases The Fallen Idol on the 1935 Graham Greene short story The Basement Room (the ending is changed to a happy one, as the book’s ending would have resulted in the most sympathetic character committing a murder). Greene also is the screenwriter and had no problem changing his story. It’s a gripping mystery story involving adult secrets, childhood lies and betrayal as part of the human equation. It unfolds from the viewpoint of a child, but it’s far from a child’s story. It’s artfully shot by the French cinematographer Georges Périnal (“Blood of a Poet”), who fills its dark scenes with an unsettling air.

Philippe (Bobby Henrey) is the lonely eight-year-old son of the French ambassador who lives upstairs in the cold palatial London foreign embassy; the servants live in the basement.His mother has been seriously ill for the past eight months abroad and his father leaves him on a Friday afternoon for the weekend to bring her back home. While his mother was away the child has been looked after by the butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) and his mean-spirited, overbearing, embassy housekeeper wife (Sonia Dresdel), someone the youngster hates. She has the sensitivity of a serpent and will get rid of his harmless pet snake MacGregor for no reason but spite. This leaves the kid upset. The kid’s father is too busy for him, so the kindly Baines becomes his surrogate father and fills the kid with false adventure stories of him in Africa. The kid idolizes Baines, who welcomes the kid’s attention, and they both appear as wounded souls as they cower before the bossy Mrs. Baines. When denied permission to go with Baines for a walk Philippe sneaks out and will discover Baines in a nearby tea shop with his girlfriend from the last seven months, the long-suffering Julie (Michèle Morgan), a secretary with the embassy. The kid is told to keep their meeting a secret and that she’s Baines’s niece. At home, the kid overhears Baines tell Mrs. Baines that he wants his freedom–that their marriage is not working. The kid gets berated by Mrs. Baines when she finds pastry crumbs on his clothes, and she warns him that his father doesn’t want him going outside alone. When he lies and then flubs in response by using the wrong pronoun to explain himself, Mrs. Baines gets out of him the secret he was supposed to keep and has him repeat the conversation part where the woman says she’s leaving Baines and that there can be no happy solution for them. The kid has been drawn into the adult world and their deceptions and obviously is too young to navigate those rough waters with a full understanding. Mrs. Baines schemes to catch her hubby with the unknown woman and tells her hubby she’s taking an impromptu holiday for the next two days. This prompts Baines to invite Julie to stay overnight in the embassy. Mrs. Baines returns to the embassy and spies on Julie sleeping in the guest room and accidentally falls to her death when she slips from the window ledge. The terrified kid runs barefooted into the dark wet cobblestone street in his pajamas after thinking Baines murdered his wife, and is escorted to the police station by a patrolman who finds him. The police will take him back to the embassy, and Philippe will tell a number of lies to the doctor and later to the detectives that are called in; he does so in the belief he’s helping Baines, but these lies only call attention to Baines as a possible murderer after Mrs. Baines’s death was first called accidental by the doctor. The butler will later be exonerated when new evidence is found. It turns out the police believed the kid when he lied but, when he promises Julie to tell the truth because his lies are not helping (which would only throw suspicion once again on the butler), the police refuse to believe him. It ends with Baines getting together openly with Julie at last and Philippe’s confusing ordeal perhaps being straightened out by the return of his mother and father.

It’s a writer’s film, and Greene has said it’s his favorite film adaptation. The pic is dependent on Henrey to carry it and the kid, in almost every scene, does so marvelously, and he does so because he gives a naturalistic and awkward performance that’s more convincing than if it were dependent just on good acting. Richardson, in a very good performance, is the decent butler with very human flaws who nearly gets the business over a mere white lie. The taut gem cleverly works its way to a satisfying Hitchcockian suspense ending, and is able to intertwine adult themes of guilt and intrigue with an innocent child just looking for some love and attention but having his childhood betrayed when he misunderstands the dark world of adults.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”