Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Fallen Idol (1948)

Secrets and Power in The Fallen Idol (1948)
“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”
I can’t remember the exact year I saw The Fallen Idol for the first time, but I wasn’t much older than Phile (Bobby Henrey), the child star of the film. While I identified with the child’s point of view, the film had an even greater significance for me as my grandparents were life-long professional servants, and they worked, coincidentally, in a mansion complete with a marble staircase very like the staircase in The Fallen Idol. The life of a domestic servant--was, according to my grandparents, a difficult profession--one that required certain behaviour based on discretion, correct deportment and the ability to be invisible at the right moment. While servants certainly had private lives, personal problems weren’t supposed to interfere with daily life. Servants were hostage to those-crucial-to-the-profession references, and if a household servant lost his job, he lost his home too.

And that brings me to The Fallen Idol--a quiet masterpiece that delves into the strange insular world of servants, and their difficult, murky relationships with their employers.

The Fallen Idol is the first of three films from a fusion of the minds of author Graham Greene and director Carol Reed. The Third Man followed in 1949, and Our Man in Havana was released in 1959. Of the many film adaptations of Greene’s work, he was apparently most pleased with The Fallen Idol. The film is based on the short story The Basement Room, and Greene acknowledged that converting a novel into a film called for “compromise.” He surmised that perhaps The Fallen Idol was so successful an adaptation because it was based on a short story. Indeed the plot is simple and takes place over the course of a weekend.

Some interpretations of the film label it as a tale of the ‘loss of childhood innocence.’ Since the film’s focus is the relationship between the child, Phile and the butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson) the title, The Fallen Idol infers that Phile learns that his idol, Baines, has feet of clay, and while that is true, just how innocent Phile is remains debatable. Reactions to the film may depend on how viewers see Phile and childhood in general, so it’s a good idea to keep in mind that Graham Greene’s novels explore the amazingly complex grey areas of morally ambiguous territory.

The film’s setting--with the exception of a few scenes--is the embassy of an unspecified Francophone country. When the ambassador departs for the weekend, he leaves his son, Phile in the care of the faithful butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson) and his formidable wife, the housekeeper, Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel). Baines has a soft spot for Phile, and in return, Phile adores Baines. The opening scene is seen from the bird’s-eye position through Phile’s eyes. Staring through the banisters of the embassy’s top floor, he sees things he’s not supposed to see, and in the film’s very first scene he witnesses a strange incident between Baines and the embassy secretary, Julie (Michèle Morgan). When the ambassador and the rest of the household servants leave, a holiday atmosphere reigns with a feeling that perhaps all the formality--along with the rules--will relax a little. The ambassador will return on Monday along with his long-absent wife. Details about her absence are vague, but there is reference to an ‘illness.’ There’s something fishy--something that indicates a problem, and it’s ugly enough to be covered up. Has the ambassador’s wife had an affair, or has she been locked up in rehab somewhere? But these questions are never answered and remain open to speculation. Nonetheless, the remoteness and distance between Phile and his father are established in this very first scene. Only Baines seems to intuit Phile’s despondency and loneliness, and it’s immediately clear that Phile’s primary relationship is with the butler.

Phile, an effete, fey child, slight and blond, who speaks English with a slight lisp, has a strange, confused position in the household. On one hand, he is just beginning to grasp the notion that he has a position of some importance, but then again he’s subject to the authority of the servants. He’s relegated to the top floor of the huge embassy and is restricted to just a few rooms in a strange, lonely exile and confinement. Embassy business is conducted on the first floor, and Mr. and Mrs. Baines, butler and housekeeper, live in the basement flat.

In the kitchen, Baines entertains the lonely, bored child with heroic tales of his days in Africa when he fought off the ‘natives’ in various uprisings. These make-believe stories keep Phile enthralled while Baines assumes the role of substitute father, deftly avoiding the complex moral questions continually lobbed at him by his small charge. Baines even keeps the existence of Phile’s pet snake, MacGregor from the neurotic Mrs. Baines. Mrs. Baines has ordered Phile to ‘dispose’ of it, but both Baines and Phile know that the snake is still alive. With a bond of solidarity in the presence of the tyrannical Mrs. Baines, the message between Phile and Baines seems to be that the less Mrs. Baines knows the better.

With Phile’s continual spying from the vantage point of the top floor, he watches Baines leave the house, and so he follows, only to discover Baines in a near-by teashop with the embassy secretary, Julie. Baines introduces Julie as his ‘niece,’ and it’s clear to the viewer that Julie and Baines are in love. During this scene, Phile’s invasion of Julie and Baines’s tryst underscores the difficult relationship between the butler and the boy. The boy has the ‘right’ to invade Baines’s private life but Baines, fearful of exposure feels compelled to lie in order to keep Mrs. Baines at bay. This scene effectively conveys the restraints endured by the adults under Phile’s fidgety presence.

Sworn to secrecy about Baines’s ‘niece,’ it doesn’t take long for Phile to spill the beans to Mrs. Baines. In order to discover the identity of the other woman, and to lure Baines into a feeling of security, Mrs. Baines pretends to leave. This unexpected reprieve grants Baines an opportunity to take Julie and Phile to the zoo. While Baines and Julie try to talk, cleverly paced scenes show Phile’s continual demands for attention, and also his disappointment that he doesn’t have Baines’s exclusive attention. Subtle clues indicate that Phile regards Julie as an intruder--someone he’d rather not have included in the outing. Repeated imagery at the zoo echoes Phile’s virtual imprisonment in the embassy where the banister rails appear to form cage bars, but here at the zoo, Phile is no longer the caged animal. He’s unleashed and his demands escalate as the day continues.

The trip to the zoo is followed with a game of hide-and-seek in the embassy rooms, and in these marvelously photographed scenes, full of Dutch angles, Phile is seen scampering through rooms and under tables. But even in this familiar innocent childhood game, the minefield of the adult world--a world of deception and adultery--intrudes and is seen through the child’s excited, terrified eyes.

During the evening, just how innocent Phile becomes a subject for some debate. As Phile, Baines and Julie return to the embassy, Phile begins to drop broad hints, and if Baines and Julie were listening, they’d have serious cause for alarm. Phile asks just how important it is to keep secrets and then rather pointedly asks: “Even Mrs. Baines’s secrets?” Phile desperately wants attention, and while Baines and Julie ignore the child as much as they can, Phile continually tries to reassert himself into their lives with his hints and questions. The three adults--Baines, Mrs. Baines and Julie--have empowered him by sharing their secrets, and they’ve also taught him that the keeping and giving of secrets makes him the center of attention, so whenever Phile feels neglected, he fires up those comments.

Later that evening, Mrs. Baines ends up dead, and Phile, whose imagination works overtime, wanders the streets of London in his pajamas. In the film’s most amusing scene, a terrified and silent Phile is handed over by the police to prostitute, Rose (the great British comedienne Dora Bryan) on the assumption that a woman will reassure the boy. While Rose is limited to her usual pick-up lines, Phile responds to her femininity, and this scene accentuates Phile’s basic innocence. He hasn’t a clue that he’s in the arms of a prostitute, but of course, it’s quite obvious to the viewer. This scene of innocence acts as a bridge between Phile’s demanding behaviour at the zoo and the behaviour he’s about to show at home to the police.

Back at the embassy, Phile’s behaviour becomes even more erratic. While up to this point, Phile has been sidelined by the adults in his life, suddenly he becomes the centre of attention, and when that focus moves away, he continually attempts to get back in the limelight. It’s much too simplistic to ascribe Phile’s behaviour as an attempt to save Baines because Phile continues to pester the police, becomingly increasingly desperate to get their attention even when Baines is off the hook. By the film’s conclusion, the police, who at first couldn’t pry enough out of Phile, just want him to shut up, and when one of the police detectives declares: “Somebody take this child away,” we’re ready to see him shipped off to boarding school.

Phile has learned the hard way that Baines is no brave, romantic hero, but a shriveled, pathetic, henpecked husband, but then on the other hand, Phile is no innocent little boy. Phile’s desperate need for attention is heightened by a degree of transference he feels for Baines, and when Phile defies Mrs. Baines and tells her that he hates her, Phile is acting as a proxy for Baines. Similarly the idea that Baines wants his “freedom” haunts Phile, as Phile too wants his freedom. He’d like to be a normal little boy who plays with friends and who goes for walks in the park, but instead he’s also a captive--an idea that’s underscored by the trip to the zoo and also the game of hide-and-seek with the table and chairs forming a cage-of-sorts.

The Fallen Idol is a deceptively simple story, fleshed out by excellent cinematography, and reinforced with Greene’s superb screenplay. The film captures its audience by its heightened attention to the universal features of childhood and by its intense use of suspense. In the final scenes, the camera keeps the clue--a large tilting window--in the centre of the screen, and rarely moves from it. The Fallen Idol is a small masterpiece sadly overshadowed by the release of The Third Man in the following year and it’s often delegated to the late-night viewing slot for insomniacs. Criterion produced a gorgeous editionof The Fallen Idol in 2006, and it’s an edition that this film so greatly deserves.

Written by Guy Savage

Note: IMDB states that the child's name is Phillipe. The review refers to the boy as Phile. This is the way his name is spelled, by Baines, in the film.


Anonymous said...

I just watched this movie (Netflix rental) and enjoyed it (and subsequently your review) very much.

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