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Fallen Idol, The (1948)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Fallen Idol, The (1948)
35mm, black and white, 94 mins
DirectorCarol Reed
Production CompanyLondon Film Productions
Screenplay/StoryGraham Greene
Additional DialogueLesley Storm, William Templeton
PhotographyGeorges Périnal
MusicWilliam Alwyn

Cast: Ralph Richardson (Baines); Bobby Henrey (Felipe); Michèle Morgan (Julie); Sonia Dresdel (Mrs Baines); Denis O'Dea (Det. Inspector Crowe); Walter Fitzgerald (Dr. Fenton); Dora Bryan (Rose)

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The young son of a foreign ambassador becomes convinced that his best friend, the family butler, has murdered his wife, and unsuccessfully tries to protect him from the police.

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The Fallen Idol (d. Carol Reed, 1948) brilliantly evokes the transition from pre-pubescent childhood to adolescence. Graham Greene based his script on 'The Basement Room', his 1935 story of a young boy who inadvertently betrays his best friend to the police. Greene and Carol Reed reshaped the narrative to emphasise the young protagonist's growing pains and the sense of loss that comes from leaving childish things behind.

Felipe (Bobby Henrey), the son of a foreign diplomat, is cared for by Baines (Ralph Richardson), the butler. The boy's mother has been convalescing back home for the last eight months and his only maternal figure is Baines' austere and unsympathetic wife (Sonia Dresdel).

Richardson gives a magnificently understated performance, while Henrey is a revelation in a complex role with strong Oedipal overtones. Felipe has a troubled relationship with his mother substitute and, in a sad yet chilling moment, admits to Baines that he can't even remember his real mother. The Freudian elements of the story are further emphasised in the subplot regarding Mrs Baines' dislike of Felipe's beloved pet snake. He keeps it in a secret hiding place but she eventually finds it and disposes of it in the furnace. These psychological elements climax in a brilliantly photographed game of hide and seek, in which Baines and his mistress (Michèle Morgan) chase Felipe all over the embassy before retiring to spend their first night together.

For its first half, the film rigidly maintains Felipe's point of view. This subtly alters after Mrs Baines, unhinged by the discovery of her husband's love affair, dies in an accident. After Felipe flees the embassy in shock, we begin to have access to scenes to which he does not. This strategy marginalizes the boy who has hitherto been the central focus, emphasising his distance from, and struggle to comprehend, the adult world.

The ambiguous sexual undertones of the story get a humorous outlet in the police station scene in which an unrepentant prostitute (Dora Bryan), trying to comfort Felipe, finds only those ready-made phrases she uses with her customers. An exasperated desk sergeant, unable to complain about the plain meaning of the words, asks if she "can't do it without the smile?"

Preferred by many, including Greene, to The Third Man (d. Reed, 1949), the film's rich texture has kept it fresh over the years, allowing for a variety of critical interpretations.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. A reluctant witness (5:10)
2. The investigation (3:53)
3. The truth (4:57)
Original Poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
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Hawkesworth, John (1920-2003)
Lee, Bernard (1908-1981)
Périnal, Georges (1897-1965)
Reed, Carol (1906-1976)
Richardson, Ralph (1902-1983)
Children on Film