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THE FALLEN IDOL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Bobby Henrey, Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel
Director: Carol Reed
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Criterion
Features: A Sense of Carol Reed featurette, illustrated filmography, press book gallery, booklet
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: November 7, 2006

"Do you know what happens to little boys who tell lies?

Film ****

Contrary to popular belief, Orson Welles did not direct the noir masterpiece The Third Man.  Welles merely appeared in the film, which was actually directed by British filmmaker Carol Reed.  Long before Welles ever arrived in Hollywood, Reed already was being hailed as one of Britain's top directors, an inspirational idol for up-and-coming young directors like Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock.  How ironic that the sheer breadth of Carol Reed's under-appreciated artistry is seldom recognized now.  By any standard, Reed richly deserves a reserved spot in the upper echelon of the greatest film directors of all time.

Carol Reed certainly possessed the right pedigree.  His father was a celebrated Edwardian stage thespian.  Reed followed in his father's footsteps by choosing an acting career before becoming a successful stage director.  By the 1930's, Reed had firmly established himself in the exciting new medium known as sound cinema.  The second World War scarcely diminished Reed's artistic development - his 1945 war propaganda documentary The True Glory earned Reed his first Oscar.

Following the war, Carol Reed entered the most critically successful phase of his career.  Starting in 1947, Reed made in quick succession Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man.  Reed's status as a top British director would have been firmly cemented on the basis of just these three astonishing films alone.  All three films are thrillers, but The Fallen Idol stands out in particular for its highly unorthodox approach.  More than a typical film noir, The Fallen Idol is a delicate story of a young boy's gradual disillusionment with the world of adults.  During the course of the film and its nearly tragic events, this young boy undergoes a transformation, awakening from an existence of carefree innocence to the higher state of maturity and the sudden uncertainty that must inevitably accompany all childhood's end.

Based on a short story by Graham Greene, The Fallen Idol is really two stories.  One is the tale of a man who longs for freedom from a loveless marriage so that he may stay with his young mistress.  How far will he go to pursue this goal?  Might he even contemplate...murder?  The second story is that of a young boy contented with his games of fun and daydreams.  He idolizes this man, his father's manservant, and the boy's interpretation of the adult affairs which play out all about him is a world apart from the decidedly more serious and mature tone of the adults themselves.  Imagine a police procedural or a tragic romance, like Brief Encounter, as seen through the eyes of a young child.  How strange the conversations and innuendos of adult speech must seem to such an innocent mind and pure heart!

The young boy, Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), is the central character of The Fallen Idol.  The story unfolds almost entirely through his eyes, and if at times the actions or words of the adults seem bizarre to the young child, then so the film amazingly conveys this sense of puzzlement to audiences, too.  Such is the essence of the film's wondrous magic and Carol Reed's genius (particularly with his handling of young Bobby Henrey, a non-actor).

Phillipe's parents are away, and in their absence, the boy has been left in the charge of the head maid (Sonia Dresdel), virtually an archetypal wicked stepmother.  She is the typical fairy-tale harbinger of gloom and doom, a killjoy character in the guise of a cold and malicious quasi-nanny.  This adversary has no qualms about indifferently disposing of Phillip's beloved pet snake or sending the boy to his room without meal for expressing his thoughts.  In one alarmingly frightening scene, she even towers over him like a witchlike apparition, peering hungrily upon the boy as he awakens from the depths of sleep, causing him to shrink in fear within the folds of his blanket.

The maid's husband Baines (Ralph Richardson) is the manor's austere man-servant.  A gentle and friendly soul, he possesses an innately trustworthy and wise demeanor towards which Philippe instantly gravitates.  For the boy, Baines is a hero.  But even heroes have their flaws.  Baines is in love with another woman, not his wife.  As Baines is more father to Phillipe than the boy's own father, so then is Baines's gentle mistress Julie (Michèle Morgan) more nurturing mother to the boy than his own absent mother or even her inadequate surrogate, Baines's wife.

While Baines and Julie attempt to spend their final hours together before Julie's departure forever, Phillipe innocently insinuates his way into their conversations.  Phillipe spends a great deal of time observing the adults, too, spying upon them from afar - through windows, from stairways, under banisters.  His childlike interpretations of the adults' strange behavior give the film its dreamy and sometimes surreal ambiance.  Unable to differentiate between fairy tales and truth, the boy whole-heartedly accepts Julie as Baines's niece, playing along with the little games of deception.  He listens wide-eyed to Baines's unlikely tales of derring-do in wild Africa.  For Phillipe, the secrets and lies which harbor and preserve the adults' indiscretion are merely further elements of a game.  However, the shocking developments which transpire once Baines's wife suspects the truth, coupled with Phillipe's clumsy efforts to conceal the truth, inevitably set the stage for some tense moments in the film's second half.  Has Baines actually committed a crime of passion, or has Phillipe gravely misinterpreted what he has seen or heard?

Despite the more somber overtones of the film's latter portions, The Fallen Idol is not a depressing film.  There is a sense of gaiety and lightness to the film that stands in stark contrast to its underlying dark Hitchcockian themes.  Just as To Kill a Mockingbird might have been a radically different film had it been told purely from an adult viewpoint, so then does The Fallen Idol benefit greatly from its child's point-of-view, maintaining an air of naïveté and innocence by portraying pivotal scenes almost entirely through the eyes of a young boy.

In The Fallen Idol, Carol Reed has crafted an unforgettable masterpiece.  Young Bobby Henrey, under Reed's guidance, delivers a remarkably natural performance, and Ralph Richardson is excellent as the kindly if conflicted and perhaps misunderstood childhood hero.  The Fallen Idol is a rare treasure - an intelligently-made "children's film" that deals seriously with complicated issues yet remains equally relatable for its young viewers and their more world-weary adult charges.

Video ***

The Fallen Idol is presented in a high-definition digital transfer created from a 35mm duplicate negative.  It is shown in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  The images are sharp and near-pristine, preserving the delicately evocative black & white chiaroscuro of the film's cinematography.  A few instances of dust specks or minor defects appear intermittently but do not detract from the overall viewing experience.

Watch carefully the sequence in which Phillipe runs away into the streets at night.  The amazing visuals of this sequence are highly prescient of Carol Reed's next film and greatest masterpiece, The Third Man.

Audio **

The film is presented with its original English soundtrack.  While dialogue is generally clear, some scenes possess a static background hiss.  Dynamic range and spatial definition are limited but acceptable for an older monaural soundtrack.

Features ** ½

A Sense of Carol Reed (24 min.) traces the life and career of Carol Reed.  Film clips, archival footage and interview segments help reveal the directorial genius of Carol Reed.  Family portraits of Reed's famous father are included, too.  Most of the film clips in this featurette come from Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man.  Behind-the-scene footage comes mostly from the Olivier! production.

A press book supplement contains 53 entries displaying the promotional contents of various press books for the film.  Most of these entries are legible, although you may need an adequately-sized viewing screen or a DVD player with a zoom feature. 

The illustrated filmography contains 39 entries consisting of press book covers and poster art for most of Carol Reed's directorial efforts.  This supplement offers a pleasing twist on the usually static presentation of a filmography.

For readers, a 28-page booklet is included with this release.  The booklet contains the usual credits and cast & crew information as well as three essays.  These essays should be read only after the film is seen.  "Through a Child's Eye, Darkly," by Geoffrey O'Brien, summarizes and interprets the events of the film are seen through Phillipe's eyes.  "From Story to Screen," by David Lodge, discusses the transformation of Graham Greene's short story "The Basement Room" into the film's eventual screenplay, also written by Greene.  Differences between the short story and the final script are noted.  "An Enchanted Moment," by Nicholas Wapshoot, provides an early career synopsis for Carol Reed leading up to the making of The Fallen Idol.

Summary:

The Fallen Idol is the middle film in a series of three consecutive masterpieces made by Carol Reed in the late 1940's.  It is the most intimate of the three and perhaps the most endearing as well.

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