I write about Carol Reed’s beautiful The Fallen Idol for Turner Classic Movies. It’s one of the director’s masterpieces and his first collaboration with Graham Greene and it was a pleasure to revisit the film and become once again enthralled in the perfection of it.
From the opening shot of The Fallen Idol, we see the world through the eyes of a young boy on the verge of adolescence. Phillipe (Bobby Henrey, a non-actor in his screen debut) is the son of the French Ambassador to England and lives in the ambassadorial mansion in London. From the living quarters on the second floor, he can be found peering through the banister down into the grand entry room below, a space where public and private life converge and a stage where the adult world plays out for his not quite comprehending eyes and ears. The staff below bustles about to prepare for the ambassador’s absence over the weekend, oblivious to Phillipe above except for the efficient and thoroughly professional butler Baines (Ralph Richardson), who always makes time for a friendly wink and a conspiratorial glance up to Phillipe. The boy adores Baines, who regales him with grand adventure stories from his time in darkest Africa, and looks forward to his weekend with Baines while his parents are away. Baines dotes on the boy who is otherwise friendless in residence. Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) is another matter, an authoritarian housekeeper who acts like a strict, disciplinarian headmistress around Phillipe. He quite understandably keeps his pet snake, MacGregor, hidden from Mrs. Baines, and the warm, accepting Baines conspires to keep Phillipe’s secret and keep the harmless snake safe from his wife, with whom relations are visibly strained and formal.
In close collaboration with Reed, Greene expanded and reworked the original story. He turned the murder into an accidental death which the boy only sees in glimpses and fragments. Convinced he’s witnessed his best friend commit murder, he’s wracked with fear but beholden by loyalty, and he unwittingly imperils his friend as he lies to cover up the deed. Reed suggested turning the pre-war British mansion of the story into the residence of the French ambassador in London, which not only explains the opulence of a lavish household with servants in post-war England but also sets it apart from the outside world even more literally – it’s technically foreign soil. Phillipe is spelled in the French fashion but always pronounced as the British “Philip” by the butler Baines and the rest of the staff. Greene added the snake, MacGregor, which is a marvelous, boyish touch and suggests a touch of symbolism: there is a snake in the mansion that is this boy’s Eden, but it isn’t MacGregor. It was a happy collaboration and a fortuitous partnership for both of them: Greene found in Reed a sensitive and savvy collaborator who understood the essentials of a good story and the art of writing for the screen, and the two worked together on two subsequent occasions: Greene wrote The Third Man (1949) and adapted his comic thriller Our Man in Havana (1959) for Reed. The Fallen Idol remained his favorite of his films.
Read the entire piece here.
The Fallen Idol plays in TCM’s “Based on Graham Greene” series on Tuesday, January 6 (it repeats in February and March). Also in that series is The Third Man, the second collaboration between Reed and Greene, which I previously wrote on for TCM here.
Both The Fallen Idol and The Third Man are also available in excellent DVD editions for Criterion.