by Lee Price
Sometimes as adults, we forget how lonely and confusing childhood can be. Produced in England in 1948, The Fallen Idol (1948) resonates long after its final scene for its moving central depiction of vulnerability and helplessness.
Fade in on Bobby Henrey as Phillipe, an inquisitive-looking boy peering through a second-floor railing, watching the clockwork precision of the embassy staff below. Everyone has a job to do but him. In his privileged position as the diplomat’s son, Phillipe is simply an observer, like a child in a movie theater (or, more pessimistically, like a prisoner behind bars). Being so young, nine-years-old at the most, he watches intently but probably understands only a fraction of what he sees.
Throughout The Fallen Idol, Phillipe is shown standing apart, often on a threshold, trying to discern what’s going on and how he should respond. He’s struggling to learn the art of social interaction—including the lies and evasions of everyday life—through his clumsy imitations of the adults around him. He misinterprets dialogue and misses important nonverbal cues. He lacks the knowledge and communication skills needed to navigate the confusing adult environment of the London-based embassy where he lives. Virtually parentless and friendless, with only a pet snake and the kind attention of the embassy butler Baines providing company, he appears desperate to make connections. But his attempts at communication increasingly fail as the movie progresses.
At one point, Phillipe overhears Baines on the phone, talking to his lover. “It makes no difference about the boy,” Baines says. “Of course, he doesn’t understand.” The adult viewer naturally anticipates that Phillipe will be hurt by the comment. But Baines is right! His unflattering remark whizzes right past Phillipe. He really doesn’t understand.
With some movies, I tend to forget the actual closing scene. For me, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) ends on a highway, in terrifying communication breakdown with the desperate Miles (Kevin McCarthy) screaming, “You’re next!” at passing cars with oblivious drivers. After that brutal scene, the coda where the authorities suddenly realize the truth—“Operator, get me the Federal Bureau of Investigation!”—swiftly fades from memory. It’s the scene on the highway that cuts to the core of things. I remember that no one is listening.
Similarly in The Fallen Idol, the little boy’s unheeded cries of “Please, please, oh please, listen to me!” in the penultimate scene echo long after the reassuring final shots of Phillipe’s mother arriving home. By this point, we know the movie isn’t about homecoming or reunion. It’s about the existential horror of not being heard. Phillipe’s wrenching cries of despair emotionally tear into the heart of the viewer even as he is ignored by the adults on screen. “Please, oh please, I’ve got to tell you something!” But no one listens, no one cares.
The Fallen Idol was the follow-up to director Carol Reed’s remarkable Odd Man Out (1947), a commercially successful movie that brought noir and expressionist visual imagery to bear on the troubles in Northern Ireland. Producer Alexander Korda suggested that he consider making a film based on “The Basement Room,” a 1935 short story by noted author Graham Greene about the long-term impact upon a boy of seeing his beloved butler murder his wife. At first, Greene was dubious about the story’s potential for a feature film but an enthusiastic Carol Reed coaxed him into full involvement. They holed up in a hotel and completely re-conceived the story.
The original story focused on the malicious effects of guilt, with the lives of the guilty butler and the young boy irrevocably damaged by their actions and lies. For the new script, the reworked story shifted the narrative to a British variation on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy. First and foremost among the changes, the butler is now innocent of the crime, although—as in An American Tragedy—the motivation and propensity for violence remain forbiddingly present.
To this day, Carol Reed remains an enigma for film auteurists intent on finding personal signatures for directors with impressive bodies of work. Reed’s extraordinary run of movies from Odd Man Out in 1947 through The Man Between in 1953, appear to offer a cohesiveness of urban existential pessimism accentuated by memorable Dutch angles and finely nuanced performances. In The Fallen Idol, a panic-stricken Phillipe dashes down deserted city alleys, with puddles glinting in the night and large shadows cast against brick walls, just like the streets of Belfast in Odd Man Out, Vienna in The Third Man (1949), and Berlin in The Man Between. The remarkable performance of Ralph Richardson in The Fallen Idol resonates with other great portraits from this period in Reed’s career: doomed yet dignified James Mason in Odd Man Out, the cavalier yet desperate Orson Welles in The Third Man, the morally compromised Trevor Howard in Outcast of the Islands (1951), and the tragically conflicted James Mason (again) in The Man Between. In these movies, Reed appears to pursue an interest in visually exposing the masculine weaknesses that can trigger catastrophic failure.
But Reed’s best work before and after these movies prevent him from fitting neatly into such an auteurist frame. Time and again (even during his peak years), he changes his visual style and pacing to complement the material—suggesting that he was perhaps more of a conscientious adaptor of material by other authors than a director with a personal vision. According to this viewpoint, Reed’s allegiance was to the script rather than to expressing a personal aesthetic vision. But even this is unclear, as stories emerge of Reed’s idiosyncratic additions that make his films uniquely his own. Certainly, Reed’s acknowledged script contribution in The Fallen Idol of the character of the clock winder—who marvelously intrudes into a particularly suspenseful scene—suggests that Reed was himself a highly original writer. The swiftly unfolding narrative must pause while the clock winder, a consummate professional much like the butler Baines, goes about his business. “They behave much better if they’re looked after,” he says, referring to the embassy clock. “You don’t want to do it jerkily. And not too fast. You must take your time.”
At his best, Reed was a wizard at bringing out the best in a collaborating team of filmmakers. He didn’t hog the show. He was the type who shared the glory. In The Fallen Idol, his impressive team of collaborators most notably included author and screenwriter Graham Greene, actor Ralph Richardson, actress Sonia Dresdel, cinematographer Georges Périnal, and set designer Vincent Korda, each unobtrusively contributing sparkling masterful details to the whole. Beautifully rendered performances are a hallmark of Reed’s work—with primary credit often reasonably given to the actor rather than the director. But behind-the-scenes recollections about the filming of The Fallen Idol reveal that Reed was truly skilled as a director of actors.
From all reports, Reed’s lead performer, the nine-year-old Bobby Henrey, was not a gifted child actor. During the lengthy film shooting schedule, Reed carefully protected him, establishing friendship and trust while gently coaxing a coherent performance out of him. Reed would act out the parts, often miming encouragement and reminders from a distance as the cameras were rolling. For Bobby Henrey, Reed became the equivalent of Baines—the person thoughtfully helping him through a situation that he never fully grasps. Somehow it all came together. On screen, Bobby Henrey’s performance feels real. I can’t imagine anyone else handling those “Oh, please, listen to me” pleadings at the end so poignantly.
The Fallen Idol is especially acute in capturing the desperate attempts of Phillipe to participate in an adult world. From time to time, Phillipe imitates Baines’ mannerisms in an endearing yet somewhat pathetic attempt to sound older and wiser. When Baines winks at him, Phillipe lifts his chin, offering a polite nod of assent, as if they are peers. When caught by Phillipe in an illicit rendezvous with his lover, Baines asks the boy to keep the secret. Phillipe’s response is a child-like echo of Baines’ sophistication: “I’ll never let you down, Baines.”
The tragic elements that pervade The Fallen Idol recall that famous insight at the heart of another classic movie about communication failures, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939). In Renoir’s masterpiece, “The awful thing about life is this: everybody has their reasons.” In The Fallen Idol, the adults understand and accept that they are each following their own private narratives, leaving Phillipe hopelessly confused with his certainty that there is one single truth. He is more upset that Baines invented supposedly true stories of African adventure than he is by the realization that Baines is innocent of murder (Greene and Reed pointedly realize that the boy derives pleasure from the idea that his revered butler really has murdered his despicable wife). The police officers investigating the death settle upon one narrative after another, each time only accepting evidence that will support their favored story of the moment. Phillipe’s cries at the end are ignored because Phillipe’s truth does not align with their manufactured narrative.
Phillipe fails at keeping secrets, fails at telling effective lies, and even—in the closing scenes—fails at telling the truth. He talks and talks, and no one listens. And that’s what we remember.
The mother arrives at the end and Phillipe dashes down the magnificent embassy staircase for a final embrace. Off to the side, Baines is united with his lover. This happy ending rushes by in a matter of a few easily-forgotten seconds. It’s the rest of the movie that stays with you. “Please, oh please, I’ve got to tell you something!” But no one listens, no one cares.
For their follow-up, Carol Reed and Graham Greene carried their bleak vision to Vienna where secrets and lies predominate once again. Friendships fall apart and lovers fail to connect. In the last scene of The Third Man, the movie’s two seeming romantic leads pass each other on the street with no words exchanged because all hope of honest communication has been lost through betrayal and deceit. It’s a fitting bookend to The Fallen Idol, revealing that adults can be just as unfit to navigate a dangerous world as a child.