1949 / Best Director

Film #624: The Fallen Idol (1949)

Some, including myself, believe that the best collaboration between Carol Reed and Grahame Greene came in the form of The Third Man; which I discussed in my previous post. But it’s their first film together which Greene considers to be their best which is possibly because there wasn’t an argument about the ending like there was for The Third Man. Based on Greene’s short story ‘The Basement Room’, The Fallen Idol was the first film that put Reed on Oscar’s radar; earning him his first Best Director nod whilst also recognising Greene for his work on the adapted screenplay.

Unlike the complex The Third Man, The Fallen Idol is a rather simplistic story of a belief in heroes and a loss of innocence told against the backdrop of a suspicious death. Although set in London, the majority of The Fallen Idol takes place in the city’s French Embassy and is seen through the eyes of the ambassador’s young son Fellipe. As the title suggests, Fellipe idolises his father’s butler Baines primarily as he’s recounted the youngster with fantastical tales about his time in Africa. Fellipe is often left alone with Baines as his father is often hard at work or with his ill mother who has been recuperating in their native country. Whilst Baines lavishes Fellipe with stories and treats, his wife is the opposite and often berates the child for not obeying her orders. It’s clear that the Baines’s marriage is in trouble and that is intensified when we follow Fellipe to a meeting between the butler and the woman who he initially introduces as his niece. Although the youngster believes this ruse, it’s clear that embassy typist Julie is in fact Baines’ mistress and soon Fellipe is being asked to keep secrets by both the butler and his wife. The film’s masterful set piece takes place on a day where Baines and Julie treat Fellipe to a trip to zoo and dinner back at the embassy whilst under the belief that Mrs Baines is visiting her sick mother. In actuality, Mrs Baines is stalking around the house and the scenes in which she is stalking her husband and his mistress are some of The Fallen Idol’s best. When she finally reveals herself, there’s a quarrel between husband and wife which leads to the latter falling to her death and the former attempting to deal with the matter in a prompt manner. However, upon witnessing Mrs Baines’ death, Fellipe runs into the London night and soon arises the suspicions of both the local doctor and the police who launch a full-on investigation into the supposed accident. The one issue is that Baines’ insistence in keeping Julie’s name out of the matter ultimately makes matters worse and leaves Fellipe wondering who to believe.

It might be because I’ve just watched two of the best movies of all time, but I wasn’t invested in The Fallen Idol as much as I thought I’d be. The fact that some people, including Greene himself, believe that this movie is better than The Third Man is just ludicrous as Reed’s Vienna-set masterpiece is better in almost every way. I believe a lot of my issues surrounding The Fallen Idol concern the character of Fellipe and the performance of Bobby Henrey; both of which irritated me in equal measure. To be fair, as a director I felt that Reed did well getting an interesting performance out of the then eight-year-old Henrey but it wasn’t enough for me to be completely compelled by him. I thought that Henrey excelled the most during his more silent scenes, especially when he witnesses Mrs Baines’s death, as his facial expressions were lively. However, it was when he was reciting the lines of dialogue that I found it hard to believe him and I found him to be particularly irritating during the police investigation. Conversely, I found Ralph Richardson to be excellent as Baines to the extent that I felt he deserved at least an Oscar nod for his role as the conflicted butler. Richardson was convincing as both a childhood hero and a lover to the beautiful Jane with his measured performance in the film’s final third being the highlight of that patchy sequence. Special mention also must go to Dora Bryan for lightening the mood in a hilarious cameo as a prostitute who interacts with Fellipe when he’s brought to the police station. Aside from Henrey’s performance, my other issue was with the whole police investigation which felt quite cliched and predictable, as holes gradually appeared in Baines’s story. After watching two movies about criminal masterminds and the ensuing police investigations, the police presence here was unimpressive although the outcome was unexpected.

One thing I don’t dispute is that Reed did deserve his Best Director nomination for framing the film from Fellipe’s perspective and making me believe that the story was being told from his point-of-view. Additionally, there were some excellent set pieces especially the pivotal sequence in which Fellipe discovers Mrs Baines’s appearance in the house till her eventual fall. Reed’s direction of Henrey also demonstrates how he can get the best out of child actors, a skill he later utilised brilliantly during Oliver! Whether the film itself deserved an Oscar nod is a harder question to answer, especially seeing as none of the four losing Best Picture nominees really impressed me that much. Overall, The Fallen Idol did have its moments but didn’t have the same heft as the more action-packed Twelve O’Clock High and Battleground or the well-crafted The Heiress. Although The Fallen Idol isn’t Reed’s finest hour by a long shot, it did demonstrate some excellent techniques which the director would hone during his career to become one of Britain’s if not the world’s finest directors.

Next time we look at a film by a director whose had plenty of success with Oscar and a star who never won the Best Actor Oscar that some feel he deserved.

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