Film: The Fallen Idol

Considering the brilliance of The Third Man and Our Man in Havana, you’d be hard pressed to prevent me from watching a movie directed by Carol Reed based on the fiction of Graham Greene. The Fallen Idol (1948) may lack in spies and espionage, but it more than makes up for it with Hitchcockian atmosphere, accomplished film-making technique, and pointed social commentary about the toxic effects of adult dishonesty on children.

Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) is the young son of a French diplomat, who lives a lonely existence in a vast embassy, frequently left to his own devices. Phillipe’s only friend is the butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), a charming, witty man who impresses Phillipe with adventurous tall tales of his past—and shields him from the stern tongue-lashings of his wife Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel). But when Phillipe stumbles inadvertently into Baines’ secret personal life, he’s drawn inexorably into a conspiracy to protect his idol’s reputation, in a series of escalating events that threaten to obliterate his sense of the truth.

The Fallen Idol is an accomplished, child’s-eye-view thriller with a subtle, intriguing build-up that lets the viewer in by slow, unsettling degrees. Phillipe’s restricted point of view and limited comprehension serves to underscore the powerful theme, as Baines’ supposedly harmless lies lead to tragic consequences—and a traumatic, shattering effect on Phillipe. The young Henrey’s performance may be off-putting to some viewers, but for his age it’s remarkably effective, especially in the final act as his frantic confusion hammers the point home. Richardson is perfect as the deceptive Baines and there is fine support from Dresdel, Michèle Morgan, and others. It’s not quite as impressive as the other two Reed-Greene collaborations, but it’s definitely of a piece with them and well worth watching.

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