Past Perfect: Criterion Classics - The Fallen Idol (1948)

[20 March 2007]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Hero worship is an understandable human trait. After all, life provides us with so many burdens that to revere another who seems to have all the answers, or at least provides hope that there are indeed resolutions out there, gives us the necessary will to continue on with the fight. This is especially true in children. Lacking the experiences that mold and manage maturity, they are almost always lost in a fog of their own naiveté. Like the simpleton satellites they are at first, they tend to gravitate towards those who they feel can protect and guide them. Usually, said individual is a person with a demeanor of authority and reserve. They appear calm and prepared, ready to address any situation that the child feels could literally swallow them whole. As reliance turns into reverence, the preparation begins for the inevitable fall. Sometimes, the tumble is gradual, learned internally over time and interaction. In other circumstances, the plummet is predicated on a single incident or idea—a misunderstanding, a glimpsed lack of control, or some unexplainable deed that defies godliness. It’s in these moments where life delivers its most devastating lessons. It demands one apply some personal perspective, and it suggests that the carefree days of youth are about to end.

Though there is a lovers’ triangle at the center of the storyline, the relationship most important in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol appears initially to be between overworked butler Baines and dotty diplomat’s son Phile. It is hero worship meshed with just a small amount of parental guidance and guardianship. Baines, represented by British legend Ralph Richardson, and Phile, as found in newcomer Bobby Henrey, create a partnership important to understanding the entire unsettled dynamic of this superb suspense-laden thriller. Told almost exclusively from the vantage point of the child and given to moments of haunting beauty, the movie’s narrow focus and streamlined story make Idol an indelible entertainment. We enjoy learning the ins and outs of the French Embassy—the snotty cleaning crew, the haughty assistants to the Ambassador. The set designs are equally remarkable turning a typical multi-story mansion in the swankiest part of London into a labyrinthine maze of mysteries. From the moment we meet Phile, his head thrust between the slats of one of the home’s many elaborate stairwells, we understand immediately that this will be a film about perspective. What we see, what we know, and, more importantly, what we don’t witness and can’t understand will be the cornerstones of everything Reed the director is striving for. And it all is premised on the relationship between servant and master’s son.

Reed goes for a realistic approach in dealing with Phile. Many films cast their narrative around children, but then go on to make the mistake of having the kids be too intelligent or too in tune with the emotions surrounding a situation. Because his parents are so distant, because he has lived in a world surrounded by keepers and intermediaries, Phile has become lost and on his own. In his world, Phile finds solace in freedom, the connection to animals (including a pet snake MacGregor), and the closeness and comfort he senses in Baines. He doesn’t understand that this older man is suffering inside. He only realizes that his best pal’s wife, an insufferable shrew walking close along the borders of madness, hates almost everything he, Phile, stands for. To her, he’s a rotten spoiled brat who has been raised to be disrespectful, demanding, and devil-may-care. Some may argue that the most important adversarial relationship is the predicament between Mr. and Mrs. Baines, or better yet, Mrs. Baines and her husband’s lover Julie. In reality, it’s how the horrible harpy interacts with Phile that marks Idol‘s most important narrative pairing. He is the catalyst for all the confusion in the household, and she is the specter who constantly reminds Phile that adult things are happening throughout his innocent juvenile realm.

It’s the notion of innocent lost, of growing up and understanding the pressures of age that’s the central theme of The Fallen Idol. Even the title suggests the shrugging off of heroes, and the eventual loss of imaginary playmates. Certainly there is an undercurrent involving lies, truth, and cheating, but it too sets inside a grander statement about the end of childhood. There are many moments throughout Idol where Reed lets Phile fall, over and over again. He does so when he sees Julie and Baines in the teashop. It happens again when MacGregor goes “missing.” Another moment has Mrs. Baines sweet-talking the lad into divulging information, while still another has her swaying over his bed, wild-eyed with jealous rage, hoping to get answers to her suspicious questions. As a result, it’s the backwards connection between Phile and Mrs. Baines that makes up the mantle of this masterful movie. What happens between them, from a dinner-table battle of wills to a telling moment of physical abuse that impacts the remaining narrative and sets the eventual tragic gears in motion. It’s not any threat to him that causes Baines to act; it’s the long simmering showdown between his sinister spouse and the household’s only child that forces his more or less emasculated hand.

Ralph Richardson is outstanding here, especially when you consider the complicated role he is required to essay. Baines must be simultaneously alert, genial, alive, dead, disheartened, sad, angry, ineffectual, smitten, lost, and mildly menacing. He has to juggle the authority of the entire household, the constant nagging of his worthless wife, an unrequited love with a gal he cannot possess, and a boy who believes literally everything that comes from his mouth. There’s a wonderful moment when Richardson and Henrey are discussing a murder that Baines supposedly committed while in Africa. As the boy presses for details, living vicariously through his adult friend’s adventure tale, Richardson is resigned and preoccupied, unable to keep the fictional facts straight. Every misstep is met with a question, and Baines manages to repair any damage to his unreal reputation in Phile’s eyes. It illustrates their relationship perfectly—needy, circumstantially abandoned child and faux father figure who can’t quite live up to the status he’s created for himself. It’s a perfect tragic teaming—a boy constantly climbing and a man laying the flimsy foundation from which he will eventually descend. It’s how those events play out that becomes Idol‘s interesting dynamic, and Reed and Greene don’t disappoint.

Reed was definitely a director with an eye for spaces. He allowed his lens to languish over his elaborate sets and locations in order to give the viewer a proper sense of the area before letting his actors exist within it. When Mr. and Mrs. Baines have their stairway confrontation, we’ve been given so many views of the area that we sense how massive—and how dangerous—it really could be. Similarly, when Phile makes his late-night escape to avoid the confrontation between the adults, we’ve already traveled down the fearsome fire escape before. During the day, it looked like an exit to excitement. But in the darkness of a dead English night, it takes on a solid, sinister import. It’s a technique that Reed will employ throughout the rest of Phile’s journey. Shown only as a small shadow against the backdrop of deserted London streets, child actor Henrey is turned into an icon of youth afraid and unsure. When he ends up in a local police station, his tiny stature becomes a perfect point of reference. He gets lost in an oversized coat (and later, a doctor’s blanket) and seeks refuge in the bosom of a blousy prostitute. All the while, we see Phile vanishing into the reality of the world outside the estate, being absorbed by the truth that he never had to deal with—until now.

In the end, what we get is a startling suspense thriller with moments of great joy and harrowing sorrow. We get to witness a world completely foreign and obscure, yet still filled with the kind of kitchen sink intrigue we expect from much lower-class considerations. Reed complicates matters by making all his characters flawed, from Baines’s interpersonal ineptitude and loose temper to Julie’s desire to defend her man at any and all costs. Even Mrs. Baines is a battleaxe with a soul, though it seems vanquished by an internal pain that forces her to brutalize and blame. All of this gets processed through Phile’s unprepared eyes, and the results are disturbing and direct. Locked in his landscape of ascending/descending stairwells, magnificent balcony vistas of London’s old-world wisdom, dark foreboding hallways, and streets loaded with shadows too deep for any child to navigate, he looks up to Baines as his ballast. With a world full of individuals dismissive of such a pesky, precocious brat, Baines represents everything missing in his life—father, strength, honesty, and goodness. All of that is shattered one night when deception drives people unprepared for its consequences to acts both disturbing and defendable. Through the hero-worshiping eyes of a boy, it’s all an unwelcome wake-up call he is ill prepared to participate in. But he must. Now that his Idol has fallen, he has nothing left but himself.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/past-perfect-criterion-classics-the-fallen-idol-1948/