Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lost Innocence from Greene and Reed

On the occasions I review classic movies, I generally try to make the film in question, however old it might be, appear relevant. Today's film, The Fallen Idol, has been in film buff news of late, though not for happy reasons. Until recently, this fine movie was available as a Criterion Collection DVD. Last month, StudioCanal sold the rights to this and over twenty other films to Lions Gate. Criterion is known for producing just about the best DVD and Blu-ray packages on the market. Lions Gate is known for the Saw series and action films.

Now that I've made my small protest, let's get on with the review.

I decided to watch The Fallen Idol because it was the first of three collaborations between British novelist Graham Greene and British director Carol Reed. The second Greene-Reed production, The Third Man, is a masterpiece and one of my all-time favorite films. The Fallen Idol isn't quite so perfect a film as its followup, but it deserves to be far better-known than it is.

The Third Man's noirish backdrop is post-war Vienna, bombed-out, rubble-strewn, and poorly-governed. The city is so central to the film that it's almost impossible to imagine it taking place anywhere else; one cannot have The Third Man without ruined Vienna. The story of The Fallen Idol, on the other hand, could take place just about anywhere – most of the action takes place in a few rooms of an unnamed country's London embassy. The trips outdoors, though beautifully shot, tend to be fleeting. We see glimpses of London throughout the film, but it hardly defines the movie. Perhaps the film's constrained setting shouldn't surprise; The Fallen Idol originated in a Greene short story called "The Basement Room."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Fallen Idol is its reliance on a child actor. Bobby Henrey was only eight when he starred as Phillipe, the ambassador's son. Phillipe is completely believable, and it's hard to watch him suffer and grow disillusioned, even if the film ends on a happier note than its bleak source material. Phillippe is a child and the screenwriters thankfully neglected to make him wise or coherent beyond his years; if the dialogue ever sounds false, I didn't notice. If anything, Phillipe can be too convincing – when he pesters or whines, the audience cringes.

Phillipe's titular "idol" is the embassy's head butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), evidently the only adult to pay any attention to the ambassador's son. Baines is a kind man with a truly shrewish wife (Sonia Dresdel) and a beautiful would-be mistress (Michele Morgan). On a weekend when most of the embassy staff is out and Phillipe's parents are in their own country, the young boy finds himself involved in a domestic intrigue that ends in tragedy, scandal, and a police investigation. Phillippe witnesses (but misinterprets) a death, lies to the police, and generally receives a horrible introduction to the adult world. When his parents return at the end of the film, we see a look of cautious hope on the boy's face, but we doubt that he shall recover quickly. The original story, on the other hand, assures that the protagonist never got over his awful experience. In The Third Man, Reed and Greene play innocence for laughs and the occasional sigh. Here, they play innocence for tears.

Much like The Third Man, The Fallen Idol features remarkable cinematography. Much of the film is shot from low angles, giving us a "child's-eye" view of the proceedings. Phillipe doesn't understand most of what's going on around him; the camerawork helps the audience enter into his incomprehension and fear. With the aid of clever lighting, the embassy's main room changes from homey and inviting to sinister and threatening. When Phillippe first clambers down a fire escape to meet with Baines, everything is clean, white, and vibrant. Later, as Phillipe flees the embassy at night, the same fire escape, shot from the same angle, looks like a stairway to hell. In one powerful scene near the end of the movie, Phillipe runs alone and desperate through dark and empty London streets. The cinematography calls to mind the sewer chase in Reed's next movie, but in that film the fleeing figure deserves his fate. In The Fallen Idol, no one deserves the awful things that happen to them.

For all its brilliance, The Fallen Idol has a few important shortcomings. Most importantly, the endearing protagonist has a bad habit of disappearing; Phillipe is offscreen for far too much of the movie while the adults (inadvertently) decide his fate. Phillipe is the movie's viewpoint character, and the movie grows awkward when it strays too far from him. When Phillipe does affect the events that go on about him, his influence seems somewhat inorganic. There's also a little bit of over-obvious symbolism – Phillipe has a pet snake – that seemed a tad contrived to me. Still, its few stumbles don't harm The Fallen Idol too much. Would that more films provided so little to quibble about.

The Fallen Idol is an extremely good film, possibly a great one. It's painfully honest, well-written, and well-acted, but I don't think it's quite so compelling as The Third Man. You should see it, but watch Reed and Greene's second film first. Expect a review of the third and final Greene-Reed collaboration, Our Man in Havana, sometime in the coming weeks.

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