The 1948 drama The Fallen Idol is the third film I’ve seen by British filmmaker Carol Reed. I’d previously watched the dreadful Oscar-winning musical Oliver! (1968) and the stolid biopic The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), featuring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo. I’ve also seen The Third Man, the 1949 thriller attributed to Reed, though I’ve always hedged upon taking the stance that it was Reed’s film alone and not an Orson Welles film merely bearded by Reed.
Well, after watching The Fallen Idol, which directly preceded The Third Man, I can tell you that I have no doubts that the bulk of the latter film was a Welles project that used the functional journeyman Reed as a front against the American blacklist.
This is not because The Fallen Idol is a bad film. In fact, it’s merely a serviceable adaptation of Graham Greene’s short story “The Basement Room.” Only a few filmmaking techniques found in The Fallen Idol augur the grandiosity of their use in the later film (also based on Greene’s work), which was so Wellesian that to contemplate that Reed suddenly soared to greatness is to ignore verities of the way art is created and the way artists work and mature.
Now, the two later Reed films I mention above differ from The Third Man in that they are in color, in different genres, and made many years later; one could thus argue that Reed may have simply “lost his touch.” But given that The Fallen Idol was made a year earlier, is in black and white, and is based upon a work by the same writer, the comparisons between the two films are apt – and the difference in quality is stark.
Another question: Why would Reed agree to be a front for Welles? Well, Reed wanted to break into the American market. Additionally, Reed shared political sympathies with and an artistic admiration for Welles, and got locked into a career track that led to greater financial success and recognition even as the need for his artistic talents diminished. If you were a man who recognized his limits and had a chance to help an idol whose techniques you aped in exchange for personal success, would you refuse? Or would you grab the chance and then deny the obvious to your grave?
Let’s start with a brief synopsis of The Fallen Idol, from a screenplay by Greene, with “additional dialogue” provided by Lesley Storm and William Templeton: the French Ambassador in London has to go abroad to fetch his ailing wife. His young son, Phillipe (Bobby Henrey, in one of the worst acting jobs by a child in a major film release), is left in the care of the Embassy’s butler, Mr. Baines (Ralph Richardson, almost a dead ringer for Kevin Spacey). Phillipe adores Baines – the “idol” of the title – for the butler has told the boy tall tales of his adventures in Africa. Baines, however, has a harridan wife (Sonia Dresdel) who loathes Phillipe and his pet snake, and bullies her husband at every turn.
Baines seeks refuge in an affair with a much younger, prettier stenographer at the embassy, Julie (Michèle Morgan). One day, while the hyperactive Phillipe is running amok outside his home, he sees Baines and Julie at a café commiserating that she is ending things. The butler convinces the boy to keep his secret about meeting with his “niece.” He had promised to leave his wife for the gullible typist, yet cannot muster the courage to ask for a divorce.
Mrs. Baines finds out about the affair by weaseling Phillipe. She then pretends to go out of town in order to spy on the husband. It is here, in the darkened embassy, that some of the most Wellesian camera angles and shots occur, which have led many to assume that Reed’s talents did in fact develop into the greatness of The Third Man.
But even in those sequences, one sees only slight skewing; the camera is never as interactive or daring as in the later film or in other Welles features, from Citizen Kane to The Lady from Shanghai. In short, rather than the camera movements in The Fallen Idol being an earlier version of what would flower in The Third Man, they come off as mere apings of Wellesian techniques that would be employed in the later film by the original creator himself.
Following Mrs. Baines’ accidental death, Phillipe assumes that the butler has committed murder. The boy runs out into the wet, cold street, and here we see the paving stones glitter, though not nearly as effectively as those in the Vienna of The Third Man. The scene, in fact, lacks drama – and there are no great shadows from which a Harry Lime can emerge.
Things are cleared up before the end, after a number of plot contrivances – not the least of which is the mediocre depiction of a police investigation. Compounding matters, The Fallen Idol offers subpar acting (Bobby Henrey and Michèle Morgan phone in their performances), stereotyped characters (e.g., the cops and a Cockney prostitute), and some poor cinematography by Georges Périnal.
Again, it’s not that Périnal’s images are themselves bad; it’s just that they are inaptly applied to the situations in which the characters find themselves. For instance, angles are skewed in an attempt to add tension to banal scenes, an approach made worse by William Alwyn’s melodramatic musical score, which stands in stark contrast to the restrained zither sounds of The Third Man. The scenes of Phillipe running about London in his pajamas are almost comical because of Alwyn’s poor musical accompaniment.
That said, I must admit that not everything about The Fallen Idol is bad. Ralph Richardson is superb as Baines, and Sonia Dresdel never goes too Cruella de Vil in her character’s relationship with the annoying Phillipe. Also, Reed does employ the clever strategy of having the film’s first half told almost solely from Phillipe’s point of view, thus letting the viewer not only understand his confusion over adult matters but also to be subtly disoriented by them as well. Once Mrs. Baines dies, however, instead of taking the boy’s disorientation to another level, Carol Reed opts for an omniscient point of view. As a result, I lost what little empathy I had for Phillipe while watching the film sink into a mediocre game of Clue.
The Criterion Collection’s The Fallen Idol DVD offers a good transfer of the 95-minute film, but it lacks a commentary track. Ever since Criterion switched over to the semi-circle C logo they have started skimping on many of their releases, with the commentaries as the first casualty. Without a commentary, a DVD is little different than a VHS tape; it is truly a shame that they could not hire a critic or film historian to do the task. The bonus features include insert essays, a press book, and a featurette called “A Sense of Carol Reed.” It’s rather standard fare.
Not long ago, I watched the terrific 1944 Val Lewton/Robert Wise fantasy drama Curse of the Cat People, about a young girl similarly adrift in an adult world of lies and emotional violence. Despite having been sullied with a “B-movie” label, Curse of the Cat People is far superior to The Fallen Idol in every conceivable aspect, from the cinematography and screenplay to child actress Ann Carter’s sublime acting. In the film, which never resorts to clichés, one is in the mind of the child till the end. As a plus, the absence of showy camera angles actually enhances the storyline – unlike The Fallen Idol, where their use emphasizes the film’s lack of substance.
In recent years, certain critics have been arguing that The Fallen Idol is somehow on a par with The Third Man. Since it is so obviously inferior, that affirmation begs a reasoning of the motives. The one which makes the most sense is that some critics want to argue that Reed was some visionary auteur, and that The Third Man was not such a great sore thumb in an otherwise workaday film resume. In short, the argument is clearly meant to bolster the claim that Reed was the force behind both films.
In truth, The Fallen Idol is unique for it is the key to unraveling the real provenance of The Third Man. Without it, those who deny Orson Welles’ hand in the latter film could obscure their arguments with the passing of time, and the excuse of technical and technique developments. The Fallen Idol, however, acts as a smoking gun that reveals its creator’s limits and its successor’s ineffability. And for that, there is no contrived misreading needed.
© Dan Schneider
THE FALLEN IDOL (1948). Director: Carol Reed. Cast: Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel, Denis O’Dea, Jack Hawkins, Walter Fitzgerald. Screenplay: Graham Greene, from his short story “The Basement Room”; additional dialogue by Lesley Storm and William Templeton.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide. A version of this The Fallen Idol review was initially posted in January 2008.