The circumstances of our first encounters with movies are often as memorable as the movies themselves. Sometimes the juxtaposition of movie and circumstance seems merely accidental; but there are those films that change us enough that we can identify the first viewing as the precise moment when we became a different person. Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol (1948)—which I first saw on afternoon television, at an age close to that of the boy who is its protagonist—remains such a film for me, and I daresay for many who saw it at an appropriately early age. What it is like to see The Fallen Idol for the first time as an adult it is hard for me to imagine; seen in childhood, it was like a door swung ajar—whether deliberately or not—to reveal an adult world not yet suspected, and in the process to alter forever the self-awareness of the child spectator. To come back, years later, to the close-up of Bobby Henrey processing the overheard conversation of his beloved mentor, the butler Baines—“It makes no difference about the boy . . . Of course, he doesn’t understand”—is like being privileged to relive, over and over, the moment of realizing how thoroughly adults, even the most loved, pursue their own agendas.
Part of the effect has to do with Henrey himself, whose manifest nonprofessionalism sets him curiously apart from the rest of the very polished proceedings—in a way that deepens the film’s sense of missed connections. The film itself exemplifies the extraordinary craftsmanship of British cinema in the late forties, both behind the camera and in front of it. Even as a child, I could grasp that there was something extraordinary about the intricate surfaces created by Georges Périnal’s cinematography and Vincent Korda’s set designs and the sometimes harsh spareness of Graham Greene’s dialogue and Carol Reed’s direction. Ralph Richardson could make plausible the idea of Baines as irresistible idol because, in the fluid exactness of his gestures and line readings, he was, in fact, irresistible. The two women—Michèle Morgan, as the compassionate, suffering Julie, and Sonia Dresdel, as the terrifying and finally tragic Mrs. Baines—might have been competing deities of two different religions, overpowering images of Pity and Rage, respectively.
But in the midst of this world of adult splendor and mystery, Henrey—the boy Phile, through whose eyes we see most of what happens, and whose gaze, peering dreamily through the railings of a broad, winding staircase, is our point of entry into the film—is somehow just a kid. No actor, he has all the genuine awkwardness and inappropriateness of childhood: he talks too loud and at the wrong moment; he inserts himself in places where he shouldn’t be; he fails to take hints and winces when he begins to get some sense of what he has been failing to understand. When he throws a scare into Baines by imitating the voice of the butler’s dreaded wife, the effect is genuinely obnoxious. What saves his performance-that-isn’t-a-performance from being as irritating to the audience as it is at moments to the characters in the film is the way Reed’s direction acts for him. The whole cinematic apparatus is enlisted to convey what Phile sees and what spaces he moves through, in the process creating as close an impression of a child’s perception as any film has managed.
He is, of course, not just any child, but the privileged son of a diplomat, inhabiting an embassy of palatial intricacy. We sense the privilege in his physical delicacy and in an arrogance that can be forgiven only because it is utterly unselfconscious. Privilege here quickly becomes indistinguishable from loneliness and silent suffering. Phile’s father speaks to him like a stranger; his mother, we learn in the first few minutes, has been away for eight months, being treated for a serious illness; and the bored and unloved child has been given over to the care of a woman who, in her seemingly causeless malevolence, embodies every childhood fear. In a world of protocol and businesslike good cheer that would otherwise be a site for untroubled adventures, Mrs. Baines, unforgettably incarnated by the dark and piercing Dresdel, represents a meanness of spirit that cannot be skirted: “You know what happens to little boys who tell lies?”
She is the killjoy without whom the child’s world would be a very pleasant place; at the same time, his growing awareness of her power to intimidate her husband brings out, if only in the joke of mimicking her in order to make Baines jump, a potential for cruelty in Phile, even if afterward he begins to feel ashamed: “I thought it would be funny.” Mrs. Baines, it would seem, exists in order to educate Phile in the existence of evil, and his early retort to her—“I hate you”—has an effect as explosive as any physical violence. A state of war has been revealed, and Phile’s movements are those of a soldier on a reconnaissance mission, as he darts around the labyrinth of the embassy to skirt her vigilance. The shadows and tilted angles turn the embassy into a place of hideouts and potential ambushes, in which Phile’s principal occupation is to spy.
Everyone, in fact, spies on everyone. “What’s torture?” Phile asks Julie at one point, and the whole film might be taken as a definition of torture at its most civilized. If Phile creeps about to avoid the all-seeing eye of Mrs. Baines, Baines and his girlfriend, Julie, likewise behave with Phile—when the boy surprises them in the dingy tea shop where they have taken refuge—as if they were squirming under his monitoring, watching their every word and coming up with bland cover stories to explain their behavior. The charming little boy has become someone who must be lied to, distracted, used as a prop for secret rendezvous; and there are moments when he begins to look quite odious, a little monster getting in the way of lovers desperate to be alone together.
In the solipsistic world of childhood, space exists in order for Phile to play in it, and adults exist to assist him in his play, giving him boxes for his pet snake or taking him to the zoo (to see the snakes, of course). If he stares out into their world, it is initially as if it were a spectacle provided for his enjoyment. But the longer and harder he stares, the more his situation becomes that of the child who has wandered by mistake into a movie for grown-ups: a half-understood drama about lovers having an assignation in a tea shop, or about an unhappily married man asking his wife for his “freedom”—whatever that might be. Small wonder, then, that as a nine-year-old watching The Fallen Idol on Channel 9, I began to feel as if I were watching a movie about myself watching The Fallen Idol: a perfect doubling of the spying game, whose constant twisting movements make the film a more insidious counterpart to Reed’s The Third Man (1949).
Everyone, it was explained here, was a double agent, and everyone inevitably the object of others’ surveillance. The shifting of viewpoints, from shot to shot or within the same shot, is what The Fallen Idol is made of; Graham Greene’s vision of betrayal as central to human experience found its perfect corollary in Reed’s characteristic tilted angles, which here serve as constant, sometimes brutal, reminders that someone else is watching or overhearing. A sense of dread permeates ordinary life; the slightest gesture or most innocuous object can trigger disastrous consequences. As Baines tells Phile when he returns a telltale pocket handkerchief, “It’s things like that give secrets away”; and a few moments later, Phile will be trapped into giving away his most important secret, merely through using the wrong pronoun.
Like The Third Man, The Fallen Idol is a postwar movie in which war is shown to have no end: the battle continues in parlor and kitchen, and what begins in play ends in what to Phile will always look like murder. How could it be an accident, when it happened in an atmosphere of such unbridled murderousness? The death of Mrs. Baines seems like the inevitable culmination of all the lies and all the spying that turn out to be the very essence of the world that Phile, all unknowing, has inhabited; and the horrifying wicked stepmother ends not as perpetrator but victim. It is a mark of what Reed has accomplished here that a character presented from the outset as an emblem of malice acquires by the end a nearly tragic pathos. In becoming aware of the suffering that underlies her apparent wickedness, Phile enters the domain of a different kind of knowledge.
What he will make of that knowledge remains sealed. Reed softened the irremediable somberness of Greene’s short story, in which the boy’s betrayal of his idol poisons his whole life, to provide an ending at least potentially happy—the police, by substituting one misunderstanding for another, have averted the worst outcome, and Phile’s mother has come home—but there is no telling what Phile will make of a world that he has just begun to see clearly, and with a new wariness. The spatial labyrinth of the embassy, in which so much of the movie has been enacted, gives way in the film’s final moments to an unseen temporal labyrinth, the anticipation of how all these events will play back in the memory of an adult Phile, whose birth we have just witnessed.
Geoffrey O'Brien's writings on film can be found in The Phantom Empire and Castaways of the Image Planet: Movies, Show Business, Public Spectacle. His other books include Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, Dream Time, and The Browser's Ecstasy.