Friday, May 3, 2013

The Fallen Idol (1948): Carol Reed’s Intimate Camera

Carol Reed is one of those directors whose work just seems to get better and better as the years pass. I guess he’s mainly known for three brilliant films in the late 40’s: Odd Man Out (1947) The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). But he also made a very good thriller in 1940, Night Train to Munich (Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) is far more acclaimed but really they’re very similar films and there’s not much between them). And in a decade when most musicals were abominations he managed to make one that was intelligent and gripping and inventive: Oliver! (1968). (It starred another Oliver - Oliver Reed - who was Carol’s nephew, of course). The Stars Look Down (1940) and The Way Ahead (1944) are also well worth a look, and other interesting-sounding films of Reed’s I haven’t seen include Outcast of the Islands (1952) The Man Between (1953) and Our Man in Havana (1959).

The Fallen Idol is set in the French embassy in London, where two staff members, an Englishman, Baines (Ralph Richardson) and a French woman, Julie (Michèle Morgan) are in love, but trying to hide that fact because Baines’ wife also works there. The ambassador’s son Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), whose parents are away during the few days in which the story takes place, is looked after by Baines, whom he idolises, and sometimes by Mrs Baines, whom he does not. The boy also meets Julie and things get very complicated when Mrs Baines finds out about the affair. This film is known for one of Ralph Richardson’s greatest screen performances; he’s so understated and likeable and decent here. And Michèle Morgan is not only beautiful and chic but also makes Julie just as likeable and decent. Their love scenes together are similar to those in Brief Encounter in that they have a very affecting muted sadness; the lovers should be together because they’re so right for each other, but they can’t be because one of them is married. Meanwhile Baines’ wife is a nasty old shrew.

But the most important role in the film is played by Bobby Henrey. He’s a realistically dreamy child, easily distracted and perplexed by the adult world, and he’s not too smooth; he stumbles over his words sometimes in the way children do. After he witnesses what he thinks is a murder and runs out of the embassy in the middle of the night, we see a small blond boy in a curved road full of Georgian London houses (it’s like an early version of a famous set-up in Oliver!) and then scenes of him running frightened through the streets, scenes which are very similar to and just as good as the far better-known scenes in The Third Man of Orson Welles’ Harry Lime on the run. The cinematography by the great Georges Périnal - who also worked on many Rene Clair films from the 20's and British classics of the 30's like Things to Come and The Four Feathers - is crystal clear with wonderful contrasts and lovely deep blacks. The funniest line of the film - one of the funniest and most risqué in all 40’s films in fact - comes at the police station where Phillipe has been taken after a kindly policeman has found him wandering around. When Dora Bryan, playing a cheerfully low-class woman in a gaudy raincoat, arrested at night for unstated but obvious reasons, meets the boy, and finds out that he’s the ambassador’s son, she says with a big smile “ ‘ere, I know your daddy!”

The police investigation of the death in the embassy which takes up the last half hour of the film is surprisingly quirky - with strange little men coming in at dramatic moments to interrupt things by winding up clocks, and a running joke about Bernard Lee, the English ‘translator’ and his bad French that no one wants to hear. Jack Hawkins is another one of the policemen involved at this point, though Denis O'Dea as the Inspector steals the show with his smooth-as-silk voice and his unruffled insistence on getting at the truth. At the very end the boy, confused about all the lying he’s been asked to do, is now told by Julie that he must tell the truth no matter what, that only the truth will help his friend Baines. And so Phillipe frantically insists on telling the police what he knows about the clue they’ve found that exonerates Baines. They finally listen to him but don’t believe him because of all the lies he’s told before. Its’ a great complicated, twisted Graham Greene moment (the film is based on Greene’s short story The Basement Room), showing how sometimes the bare-bones facts might lead people to make all the wrong conclusions; in this case justice is done when the police don’t accept what is in fact the truth.

There’s a lot of spying and lying and secrecy in The Fallen Idol and people getting glimpses through windows of things they weren’t supposed to see, and there’s also a gun left lying about and a paper plane with an important message on it, both of which create a lot of tension. There are great views of 1940’s London, and a snake (included more for its symbolic value than anything else, I’m sure), and there’s even a scene that kind of prefigures Arbogast’s famous fall down the stairs in Psycho. Also watch throughout how intimate the camerawork is, how many close-ups there are and how many emotional moments those close-ups complement or create. It’s just a superb film in every way.  

For 75 screenshots from the film, click here

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