The Great Noirs: The Fallen Idol (1948)


This article is part of The Butlers & Maids Blogathon hosted by Caftan Woman and Wide Screen World. Click on the link for more articles on Hollywood help. The photo above shows Bobby Henrey and Ralph Richardson in a scene from The Fallen Idol (1948).

Phile: I thought God made us.
Baines: Trouble is, we take a hand in the game.
A conversation between Bobby Henrey and Ralph Richardson in The Fallen Idol.

The 1948 film The Fallen Idol is many things: The first of three brilliant collaborations between writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed, a great film about the wonder and terror of childhood, and an incisive take on lives that are based on secrets and lies. The Fallen Idol also happens to be one of the masterpieces of British film noir, standing alongside classics like The Third Man (1949) and Brighton Rock (1948) as exemplars of the vibrant cinema of Postwar Britain.

The Fallen Idol tells the story of Philippe (Bobby Henrey), or Phile as he likes to be called, who is the young son of the French ambassador to the United Kingdom. Phile's father is often preoccupied and his mother is still living abroad, so Phile is cared for by the embassy's butler Baines (the great Shakespearean actor Ralph Richardson) and his wife (Sonia Dresdel).

Mrs. Baines is often short-tempered and unsympathetic to her husband, who dreams of a different life with an embassy employee (Michele Morgan), but she is downright cruel to Phile (Mrs. Baines burns Phile's pet snake alive and strikes him, among other things). In an effort to protect themselves from Mrs. Baines' cruelty, Baines and Phile form a strong bond that is partially based on secrets and lies. However, when Mrs. Baines dies in a horrific accident, those seemingly innocent deceptions come back to haunt both Phile and Baines in unexpected ways.



The Fallen Idol was the first of three collaborations between Reed and Greene, who would go on to work together on the above-mentioned The Third Man and spy spoof, Our Man in Havana (1959). Reed had just scored an international hit with the noir Odd Man Out (1947), when producer Alexander Korda suggested that the pair collaborate on an adaptation of Greene's short story, The Basement Room. Reed and Greene came up with the ingenious idea of changing the plot from a boy who witnesses a murder to that of a boy who mistakenly believes he witnessed a murder, which created a domestic drama that is filled with as much intrigue and deceit as any of Greene's later spy thrillers.

The Fallen Idol was a massive international hit in 1948 garnering critical accolades (it was one of the National Board of Review's top ten films for 1949), major awards (it won the BAFTA for best British film and was nominated for two Oscars), and a brisk box-office business. Today, it remains a compelling classic for its focus on lies and deception through a child's eyes and Reed's signature cinematic style.

You can watch The Fallen Idol on DVD and video on demand. Here's three things to look for:

Bobby Henrey


Henrey was not a professional actor when he earned the plum role of Phile. Korda spotted the cute little boy on the cover of a memoir written by Henrey's father, Robert, about the family's life in wartime London. Despite Henrey's lack of acting experience, Reed deemed him perfect for the role because he spoke French (Henrey's mother, memoirist Madeleine Gal, was French) and because he was used to the company of adults (because of World War II, Henrey had never attended school when he was cast at age 9).
Reed worked extensively with Henrey during the eight months required to film The Fallen Idol. All of Reed's efforts paid off with one of the great child performances in cinema. Phile is the central character, and Henrey's performance is never less than compelling and has an authenticity that was missing from many child actors of the period. Henrey effectively portrays the innocence, frustration, loneliness, and terror experienced by Phile during the course of the film. In fact, Phile is the conduit for the audience's emotions. Most of us can relate to Phile's naivete and vulnerability (what child hasn't been ignored by adults on at least one occasion). Also, as adults we can see through Baines' tissue-thin lies and the leading questions of the police, which gives us more empathy for Phile's predicament.
Henrey, who is now age 80, made one more film before retiring from acting. He eventually moved to the U.S. where he leads a quiet life as a retired tax consultant and chaplain. In 2015, Henrey talked with BBC radio about his experiences while making the film and dealing with unexpected fame. You can listen here: (Henrey's interview starts at about 18 minutes in).

Through a Child's Eyes


In addition to Henrey's performance, Reed uses camera angles, particularly point of view shots, so the audience can experience the action through Phile's eyes. A good example of this is the clip above, which shows Phile watching the goings-on at the embassy through a banister. This scene establishes Phile's relative insignificance to the adults around him and his strong bond with Baines, who is the only adult to take any notice of his presence.

Secrets and Lies


The Fallen Idol is unusual among noirs for its focus on a child's point-of-view, but within that context, it deals with the betrayal, murder, and deception that is a hallmark of the noir style. Although Baines is an extremely likable character -- it's hard not to root for a man who helps a cute kid care for his pet snake -- he is also flawed, and his flaws, especially his tendency to lie, inevitably rubs off on the impressionable Phile. Through his fanciful (not to mention racist) stories about big-game hunting in Africa and his white lies to protect Phile from the harshness of Mrs. Baines, the butler has taught the young boy that "sometimes lies are just kindness," a statement that has enormous ramifications, especially when those lies almost send Baines to the gallows.

Thanks for reading! I'll leave you with this great trailer for the re-release of the film.


You can read my The Great Noirs article about The Killers (1946) by clicking on the highlighted text.


Comments

  1. The Fallen Idol is a fascinating film that leaves me with a knot in my stomach even upon hearing the title. We ache for this characters as we admire the craft of the film.

    Thank you for thinking of Baines for the blogathon.

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    1. Thanks for hosting. It's a great idea for a blogathon.

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  2. What a brilliant film it is.
    I remember seeing it when I was just a boy, and the effect it had on me
    One of those rare films that travels through life with you, and although I haven't seen it for some years, if I watched it now I would remember everything about it.
    Lovely performances from Ralph Richardson and Bobby Henrey.
    I must get it on catch up.

    Thanks for posting.

    Brian

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Films that travel through life with you is a beautiful turn of phrase and it's certainly true of The Fallen Idol.

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