When producer Alexander Korda introduced director Carol Reed to writer Graham Greene, it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration that would produce Reed’s most enduring film, The Third Man (1949).
But before they made that classic, Greene and Reed collaborated on an equally masterful film, The Fallen Idol, which Greene adapted from his short story “The Basement Room.” (Lesley Storm and William Templeton contributed additional dialogue to the script.)
The Fallen Idol is a tale of lies, deception, and half-truths as seen through the eyes of a young boy named Phillipe who lives in the French Embassy in London.
Phillipe — or “Phile,” as he’s more commonly called (it’s pronounced the same as the name Phil) — is played by Bobby Henrey, a nonprofessional actor who was 8 or 9 years old during filming.
This was the first time I’d seen The Fallen Idol, and while I was watching it I was struck by what an unaffected and natural performance Henrey delivered. The events of the film are seen mostly from Phile’s perspective, and his performance is central to the movie’s effectiveness.
So I was surprised when I watched the 2006 documentary short A Sense of Carol Reed and learned that Henrey’s “performance” was largely created by Reed and his editor, Oswald Hafenrichter.
In the documentary, Guy Hamilton, the assistant director of The Fallen Idol, recalled of Henrey, “He couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. Much worse was his attention span, which was of a demented flea.” According to Hamilton, they’d sometimes shoot thousands of feet of film to get just one line from Henrey.
Reed was patient and had a tremendous facility for directing actors of all ages. He never humiliated actors or cut them down in front of the crew. If he was unhappy with a take, he’d rarely yell “Cut!” until the actor had left the frame. On the occasions that he did, he’d do it in a tricky fashion, such as taking a nail from his pocket, dropping it on the floor, then calling out, “Cut! Can we have quiet, please?” Then he’d quietly say something to the actor like, “Since we have to start over anyway, perhaps you could…” — and get the performance he wanted that way.
I don’t think The Fallen Idol would be as brilliant as it is had it starred a seasoned child actor capable of memorizing pages of dialogue. Henrey may have been frustrating to work with, but all that matters is what’s up on screen. Phile seems like a real child, not an adorable singing-and-dancing moppet with a studio contract.
Phile’s parents spend very little time with him, and his only friend in the embassy is his father’s butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson).
Phile’s nemesis is Baines’s wife, Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), a strict, cruel woman who has no patience for Phile’s antics or his little pet snake, MacGregor.
One day, Phile follows his father figure to a café, where Baines is meeting a young French woman named Julie (Michèle Morgan). And just like that, Phile becomes an accomplice to his hero Baines’s infidelity. He doesn’t fully realize what’s going on — he believes that Julie is Baines’s niece and Baines doesn’t disabuse him of the notion — but any time a child is told by an adult, “No one needs to know about this,” the child will realize that something isn’t quite right.
The film continues in this vein, and the layers of secrecy and deception build until Phile finally believes he has seen Baines do something truly horrid, and he clumsily tries to help his friend by lying to the police for him.
The Fallen Idol is a great film. Vincent Korda’s set design is marvelous, and the spacious interiors of the embassy are as much a character in the film as any of the actors. Georges Périnal’s cinematography is full of unsettling Dutch angles and gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting. All the actors are wonderful, but Ralph Richardson’s performance is pitch perfect — he’s so kind and charming that we can easily see why Phile idolizes him, and when we begin to see the small, tragic man beneath the warm exterior, it’s heart-breaking.
The Fallen Idol is tragic and moving in parts, but Reed and Grahame also have a very light, wry touch, and there’s a great deal of humor and irony in the film. If you’ve never seen it, by all means do so. If you want to make a triple bill of it, first watch Odd Man Out (1947), then The Fallen Idol (1948), and finally The Third Man (1949). They’re as brilliant a trio of films as any director has ever made.