Yes, Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol stands as one of the great films about looking, about perspective, about the way we watch and interpret not just film plots but each other.
But, if you haven’t seen it, don’t let proclamations like that convince you it’s not also a knockout time at the movies. Reed’s 1948 film is a superb suspenseful “entertainment” — the word Graham Greene applied to it and The Third Man, a later collaboration with Reed, both based on Greene’s most commercial fictions. (William Templeton and Lesley Storm wrote the script for The Fallen Idol with Greene.)
Reed opens with a short-pants rich boy, Phile (Bobby Henrey), observing adult life through the bars holding up the banister of one of those grand corkscrewing staircases the wealthy favor in movies. Phile’s parents — his father is a diplomat, his home an embassy — leave the boy for some days in the care of butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) and Baines’s wife (Sonia Dresdel). She’s miserable, and Baines wants free of her, and she takes this out on Phile and his pet snake — and she wonders, as Phile flits and snoops, if the boy knows anything about Baines that she doesn’t. He does, of course, but he’s not sure exactly what he’s supposed to keep a secret: that Baines meets with a nice young woman (Michèle Morgan) at a coffee shop? Why would the kid think anything of that?
All the brilliant technique of England’s best postwar filmmakers is set to the task of showing us what the kid sees and feels and misapprehends as he gambols along ledges and London streets. His innocence and gently obnoxious entitlement betray Baines, of course, and in the tense third act, once the police are involved, Phile endeavors to put things right — at the worst time and in the worst way. Almost seventy years later, The Fallen Idol still disturbs.
The Fallen Idol
Directed by Carol Reed
Opens May 27, Film Forum