DVD Review Of The Fallen Idol
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/13/08
The Fallen Idol is the third film of British filmmaker Carol Reed’s that I’ve seen. Prior to that I’ve watched the dreadful Oscar-winning musical Oliver!, the solid Charlton Heston biopic of Michelangelo, The Agony And The Ecstasy, and now this. Yes, I have also watched The Third Man, the 1949 film attributed to Reed, but have always hedged upon taking the Warren Commission-like stance that it was Reed’s film alone, and not an Orson Welles film merely bearded by Reed. Well, after watching The Fallen Idol, the 1948 film that directly preceded The Third Man, I can tell you that I have no doubts that the bulk of The Third Man was a Welles project that used the functional journeyman studio director Reed as a studio front against the American blacklist.
This is not because The Fallen Idol is such a bad film- it’s merely mediocre, even if it is based upon a Graham Greene work (as is The Third Man)- The Basement Room, but that there are only a few techniques in the film which augur the grandiosity of their usage in the later film- which was so Wellesian, that to contemplate that Reed soared to greatness out of mediocrity, for the single film he collaborated upon with Welles, then resumed a mediocre career, when the more Occam’s Razor answer is that it was Welles who guided the vision of The Third Man, is to simply not recognize verities of the way art is created and the way artists work and mature.
As example, the two later Reed films I mention differ from The Third Man in that they are in color, in different genres, and made many years later, so that one could argue that Reed may have simply ‘lost his touch.’ But, given that The Fallen Idol was made a year earlier, is in black and white, and based upon a work by the same writer, the comparisons between the two films is apt, although the difference in quality is stark. But, why would Reed agree to such a thing? Well, he wanted to break into the American market, where this film did not do as well as other films by Britons as Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, he shared political sympathies with and an artistic admiration of Welles. Plus, he got locked into a career track that led to greater financial success and recognition even as the requia for his solid artistic talents diminished in need. If you were a man who recognized his limits, and had a chance to help an idol whose techniques you aped, in exchange for personal success, would you refuse? Or would you do so, and deny the obvious to your grave?
Let’s start with a brief précis of this film’s narrative, based upon a screenplay by Greene, along with Lesley Storm and William Templeton: the French Ambassador in London has to go abroad to fetch his ill wife. His seven or eight year old son, Phillipe (Bobby Henrey- in one of the worst acting jobs by a child in a major film release, and confirmed by Reed), is left in the care of the Embassy’s butler, Mr. Baines (Ralph Richardson- almost a dead ringer for Kevin Spacey). Baines has a harridan wife (Sonia Dresdel) who loathes Phile and his pet snake (she eventually finds and incinerates the reptile), and bullies her husband at every turn.
Baines seeks refuge in an affair with a much younger, prettier stenographer at the Embassy, Julie (Michèle Morgan). One day, while the hyperactive Phile is running amok outside his home, and sees Baines and Julie at a café. commiserating that she is ending things. Baines convinces the boy to keep his secret about meeting with his ‘niece.’ Phile adores Baines, who is the idol if the title, because Baines has told the boy tall tales of his adventures in Africa, against ‘the blackies,’ as well as other parts unknown. Baines has, as all adulterers do, promised to leave his wife for the gullible typist, yet cannot muster the courage to ask his wife for a divorce.
Mrs. Baines finds out about the affair by weaseling Phile. She then ruses against her husband, and pretends to go out of town, and spies on her husband in the Embassy, as he, Julie, and Phile have a picnic, and play hide and seek in the darkened manse. It is here where some of the most Wellesian camera angles and shots occur, and have led many to assume that Reed grew into the greatness of The Third Man. But even here, one sees only slight skewing, and the camera is never as interactive nor daring as it is in the later film, nor in earlier Welles features, from Citizen Kane to The Lady From Shanghai. In short, rather than the camera movements here being an earlier version of what would flower in The Third Man, they come off as mere apings of Wellesian techniques, ones which would be employed in the later film by the pioneer of them himself.
Mrs. Baines, however, confronts her husband, after Phile goes to bed. Julie is in another room, and, upon hearing the racket, Phile dashes outside to peer in through another window. They are arguing by the staircase. Baines convinces his wife to go downstairs, and leaves. Instead, she makes it over to a ledge by a swinging window, and when she leans on it, to try and glimpse her rival in the room across the way, it opens with her weight, and pushes her to her death, falling to the vestibule below. Phile sees this, and assumes that Baines pushed his wife to her death. He runs out into the wet, cold street, and here we see the wet paving stones glitter, again, though, not nearly as effectively as those in Vienna do in The Third Man. The scene lacks drama, and there are no great shadows from which a Harry Lime can emerge.
Taken home by the police, after Baines has also called for them, some inconsistencies- such as the angle of the wife’s body is inconsistent with a fall from the top of the stairs and other alibies, and Phile’s big mouth, make Baines the prime suspect in what quickly becomes a ‘murder investigation.’ Phile lies for his hero, but finally the truth comes out, that Mrs. Baines slipped off the ledge, for her footprint in the dirt of an overturned flowerpot (from an earlier row with Phile, not from when she accidentally fell) clues the cops in, even though Phile, admonished by Julie to stop lying, tries to tell them that the footprint was not from the fall, but is ignored by the cops, weary of his annoying persona. After the cops leave, the Ambassador and his wife return, and Phile is summoned to greet them.
The film suffers from some typical plot contrivances (the police investigation, which make it seem like mediocre Hitchcock, albeit with a bit more depth), bad acting (Henrey and Morgan’s phone it in performances), stereotyped characters (the cops and a- yes, Cockney prostitute they use to get info on Phile, plus some mouthy maids), and- yes, some bad cinematography by Georges Perinal. Well, not that the images are bad, per se, but that they are simply inaptly applied to the situations the characters are in. Angles are skewed to try to add tension to banal scenes, and this is worsened by the truly atrocious and melodramatic musical score by William Alwyn- which, yet again, stands in stark contrast to the still memorable, restrained, and somehow apt zither score of The Third Man. The scenes of Phile running about London in his pajamas are almost comical due to the bad score.
But, not all is bad. Richardson is genuinely superb as Baines, and Dresdel never goes too Cruella de Vil in her character’s relationship with the annoying Phile. Also, Reed does employ a nice strategy of having the film’s first half told almost solely from Phile’s point of view, thus letting the viewer not only understand his confusion over adult matters, but be subtly disoriented emotionally by them. Once Mrs. Baines dies, however, instead of notching the film up, and taking the disorientation to another level, the film takes a standard omniscient point of view, and we lose what little empathy we had built up with Phile, as well as watching the film sink into a mediocre game of Clue.
The DVD of the film is put out by The Criterion Collection, and it’s a good transfer of the 95 minute film, in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, but it lacks a film commentary track. Ever since Criterion switched over to the semi-circle C logo they have started skimping on many of their releases, with the first casualty seeming to have been commentaries. Without a DVD commentary there is simply little difference between DVDs and VHS tapes, and it is truly a shame that they could not employ a critic or film historian to do the task. The bonus features, however, include insert essays, a press book, and a featurette called A Sense Of Carol Reed. It’s rather standard fare.
Not long ago, I watched the terrific Val Lewton/Robert Wise film, Curse Of The Cat People, from 1944. In it, a female character the same age as Phile, is similarly adrift in an adult world of lies and emotional violence. That film, however, and despite being sullied with a ‘B film’ label, is far superior to The Fallen Idol in every conceivable aspect- from the technical to the screenplay to the sublime acting by that film’s lead, Ann Carter (who plays Amy). There, one is in the mind of the child till the end, and that film never falls back into cliché. The fact that it does not resort to theatrical angles is also a plus, for while such angles work in a Cold War thriller like The Third Man, in a film from a puerile perspective, like The Fallen Idol it serves to show up the actual lack of substance such theatrics were trying to hide.
Yet, especially in recent years, there seems to have been a critical movement afoot to try and argue that this mediocre film is somehow on par with The Third Man, and since it is so manifestly inferior, it begs a reasoning of the motives. The one which makes the most sense is that some critics want to argue that Reed was some visionary auteur, and that The Third Man was not such a great sore thumb in an otherwise workaday filmic resume. In short, the argument is clearly meant to bolster the claim that Reed was the force behind both films, rather than just the first one, and a beard for the second. Yet, The Third Man clearly is an oddity- due to its great quality, and unlike the bloated solidity of The Agony And The Ecstasy or the execrable dotty musical Oliver!, this earlier film is the key to unraveling The Third Man’s real provenance, for without it, those who deny Orson Welles’ hand in that film can obscure their arguments with time, technical developments, and technique, while The Fallen Idol acts as a smoking gun that reveals its creator’s limits, its alibiers’ motives, and its successor film’s great ineffability. And, for that, there is no contrived misreading needed!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
Return to Bylines