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  Fallen Idol, The Your Faithful ServantBuy this film here.
Year: 1948
Director: Carol Reed
Stars: Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel, Robert Henrey, Denis O'Dea, Jack Hawkins, Walter Fitzgerald, Dandy Nichols, Joan Young, Karel Stepanek, Gerard Heinz, Torin Thatcher, James Hayter, Geoffrey Keen, Bernard Lee, Dora Bryan
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: Philippe (Robert Henrey) is an eight-year-old boy currently living in the French embassy, the reason being his father is the Ambassador there, though currently he and his mother are away on business, leaving the child to his own devices. Since they are in the middle of London shortly after the end of World War II, the area they live in is not exactly well-populated with other children he could play with therefore he is stuck with a lonely existence only alleviated by the companionship of the butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson). It is this kind-hearted gent who makes sure the boy doesn’t feel too left out of life considering his best friend is really a snake he keeps behind a brick in the wall, and Philippe loves to hear his stories. Baines’ wife (Sonia Dresdel) is a different matter…

In the two years before he directed the enduring classic The Third Man, Carol Reed helmed a couple of other well-regarded films that may not be as high profile now, but nevertheless demonstrated his talent for getting under the psychological skin of his characters, and indeed his actors, in the best way possible. Odd Man Out with James Mason proved a hit, as did this middle film in his trilogy of nineteen-forties classics, The Fallen Idol, which echoed his gift for noirish imagery when the plot became tense in the previous film, and looked forward to his sympathetic treatment of the child cast of his sixties favourite Oliver!, for which he won an Oscar. But even that musical didn’t quite perceive the value in children that this did.

At first it seems we are seeing the world through Philippe’s eyes, therefore not quite grasping the marital difficulties the Baines are enduring, but then early on comes a scene where he follows the butler to a café where the man is staging a clandestine meeting with his mistress Julie (Michèle Morgan) who is a secretary at the embassy. We twig that they are both upset about how the relationship is going thanks to the pressure from Mrs Baines, but cannot speak plainly with the child there; it’s a sad, sensitively presented sequence that emphasised what a surprisingly delicate film this was, and that hesitant, oddly fragile balance of calm grows all the more anxious when it is toppled by the crisis halfway through.

There were a few post-war British films that brought up the subject of adultery, but Brief Encounter was likely the major work in that field, though that didn’t mean The Fallen Idol should be overshadowed, far from it as the affair here is the equal of the Noel Coward story in its empathy with the two lovers. What that didn’t have was a villain, and here in contrast to Julie’s blonde, almond-eyed and refined looks Mrs Baines strongly resembles a wicked Queen from a Disney fable, though even she has her moment to demonstrate she is not all bad when she rescues Philippe from a precarious position at a high window, not that he felt he needed saving and remains her mortal enemy in his immature mind. Baines more humanely illustrates how a relationship can break down into something less like hate, more like despair.

And then there’s the big twist when his wife discovers the affair one night that plunges the whole matter into something unexpectedly far direr than any of them could have imagined. Here was where the child’s point of view clashed with the adults’ for he wishes to save Baines from the peril he is now in by keeping his secrets: lying, basically. The more Philippe invents his tall tales, the further the police get Baines into trouble, for he is actually innocent of any crime but that’s not what the law believes, thanks to some suspicious circumstances, or circumstances that seem so, with even the boy under the false impression his idol is guilty. Again it was a matter of perspective, and we were placed in a privileged position by writer Graham Greene (who would also pen The Third Man straight afterwards) in that even Baines does not know the full story. Some feel the ending was a shade too pat, but there had been black humour throughout to temper the quiet desperation (Dora Bryan has a marvellous bit as a prostitute), and to end it any other way would have been more cruel than anyone deserved. Music by William Alwyn.

[Studio Canal have pulled out all the stops for their Blu-ray extras, with a multitude of featurettes interviewing the elderly Robert Henrey, assistant on the film Guy Hamilton, fan Richard Ayoade, and much more besides. The quality of the film print is as good as can be expected, that is with a little damage but mostly ideal, those deep shadows well preserved.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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