The Fallen Idol (1948). 95 minutes. Directed by Carol Reed. Starring Ralph Richardson (as Baines), Bobby Henrey (as Philippe), Sonia Dresdel (as Mrs. Baines), Michèle Morgan (as Julie), and Denis O’Dea (as Chief Inspector Crowe). Screenplay by Graham Greene.
The Fallen Idol is a companion piece to the The Third Man, a film that I have often alluded to on this site. The two movies were released back to back, The Fallen Idol in 1948 and The Third Man in 1949; both were directed by Carol Reed with a screenplay by Graham Greene; both explore a male protagonist’s worshipful attitude towards his male companion, which is rooted in childhood; and in both movies, the companion turns out to be more nefarious than the protagonist at first thinks. But while The Third Man’s childlike Holly Martins is an adult who has yet to let go of his youthful adoration of friend Harry Lime, The Fallen Idol’s main character Phil is still very much an actual child. As a crime drama, The Fallen Idol does not begin to approach The Third’s Man’s astonishing depth and complexity, but it is nonetheless an interesting look at culpability and deception as practiced by an entire household.
Phil is a young French boy living at his country’s embassy in London. At the beginning of the movie the boy’s father, the French ambassador, leaves Phil in the care of the house staff while he goes to recover Phil’s mother, who is abroad and ill. Such a situation might frighten other small children, but Phil, on the contrary, is thrilled. While his parents are away, he will be chaperoned by the house butler, Baines. Baines is Phil’s most treasured companion. He gives the boy soda pop, tells him wild adventure tales from his days in Africa, and helps him to care for his pet snake, MacGregor. Baines’s contentious wife, however, who also works at the embassy, regards Phil with contempt. She constantly accuses him of lying, physically abuses him at one point, and despises MacGregor, even going so far as to toss the precious pet into the furnace in one scene.
Phil’s worship of Baines becomes complicated when he discovers Baines in a tea shop having an emotional encounter with a woman whom Baines identifies as his niece Julie, who also works at the embassy. Julie tells Baines that she cannot see him anymore, that it will not work; this scene feels familiar to us, and we know how to read it, but young Phil, who has encountered it accidentally, merely sees a lady who does not want to eat her cakes. As they leave the shop, he remarks to Baines that it is very funny that Baines’s niece has worked all this time at the embassy and yet Phil never knew they were related, but of course, any adult can plainly see that Julie is not Baines’s relation. Baines explains to Phil that sometimes people keep secrets, and this is one of those times. This practice of secret keeping ultimately ushers in the child’s central dilemma: whether to reveal this secret about Baines when the time comes or whether to protect the butler from the scrutiny of others.
The next day, Mrs. Baines learns of her husband’s infidelity, argues with him on the embassy staircase, trips, and falls to her death. Phil, who only sees part of what we see, thinks that Baines must have pushed her and runs away from home. The police pick up the boy and convene at the embassy, where they become instantly suspicious of Baines’s account of his wife’s death. What unfolds is a nightmare web of lies, with Baines encouraging the boy to deceive the police and conceal evidence of his affair. There is so much lying taking place that when Baines is finally exonerated at the movie’s conclusion, it is because of evidence that is being read incorrectly; the boy knows this and tries to correct the police, convinced now that he should tell the truth, but he is accused of fibbing in spite of the fact that he is finally being honest.
Baines turns out not to be the great figure that he is in Phil’s mind. During Baines’s interrogation at the embassy, we learn that he has been lying about his trips to Africa—he has never really been there. We also see how he uses Phil to conceal his affair with Julie from the police. Phil’s suffering is truly great during the investigation, but Baines seems to care less for his charge’s well-being than he should. It is Julie who speaks to Phil intimately in his native French, who admonishes him to stop lying to the officers. The fallen idol of the film’s title would thus seem to be Baines, a figure who is undone because he lies about his past to Phil, lies to the police, and is unfaithful to his wife. Interestingly, the person who actually physically falls in this movie is Mrs. Baines, but her husband’s fall is not really dependent on hers: he tells Phil to lie for him long before Mrs. Baines’s death. He is thus early on a failure as a hero and as an ersatz parent, as is his wife.
It is interesting to ponder which movie, The Third Man or The Fallen Idol, involves the most crushing revelation and resulting disillusionment. In The Third Man, Holly Martins has staked so much on his childhood infatuation with his friend Harry Lime that giving up Lime means giving up a tremendous part of himself. In The Fallen Idol, however, Phil seems more capable of adapting after the death of Mrs. Baines and the resulting conflict. He has already handled the sad death of his pet MacGregor fairly well, and he does not seem disheartened after the police discharge Baines at the movie’s conclusion and things momentarily return to normal. Perhaps part of Phil’s resilience has to do with his willingness to think that the person he loves is capable of bad things. In contrast, Martins is convinced that in his quest to exonerate his friend Lime, he is embroiled in a battle of good and evil; but he has the good parties and the bad parties reversed—his friend Lime really is evil and the detectives who go after him are virtuous people. In The Fallen Idol, however, Phil is ready to believe the worst of Baines even though he loves him dearly. Where Martins appears to be devastated by the need to remake himself without Lime, and this remaking occurs only after he is told dozens of times what a rotten person his school chum really is, young Phil actually removes Baines from his pedestal before anyone else does, and he does it unprompted. He decides for himself that Baines is a murderer, even using the word “murderer” in front of the detectives when no one else has uttered it. Phil’s suspicion of Baines is, for better or worse, part of what makes the young boy seem mature, even though it is enveloped in a certain amount of childish misunderstanding.
Is this movie then a sort of warning about what transpires when parents go out of town? Is it a cautionary tale about leaving the servants in charge? It is certainly not a story about the sad death of a servant—no one seems to care one iota that Mrs. Baines is dead. One of the film’s most macabre moments occurs after her death. The embassy’s two cleaning ladies appear at the bottom of the staircase where the chalk outline of Mrs. Baines’s body now resides. They talk about the crime: “Do you see any blood?” “There wouldn’t be any blood; her neck was broken.” “There might be a little if the bone came through…” This revolting conversation underscores the household staff’s feelings for Mrs. Baines. It is not easy to pity a woman who is as cruel as she, but it is also, as it turns out, not easy to like the people who despise her either.
Surely that is part of what indicts all of them ethically in the end, perhaps even young Phil. This is one of the most interesting aspects of this movie: it is not just Baines who has fallen, but everyone in the house. The frequent movement up and down the dramatic embassy staircases serves to reinforce the metaphorical rise and fall of so many of the characters in Phil’s eyes, but we have cause to wonder at the movie’s conclusion if their transformation from his perspective is something that the returning ambassador and his wife will ever be aware of. In the final scene, we see Phil’s mother at the door in long shot; she has just returned home, and she calls out to him eagerly, but we see a somber look pass over his face as he descends the staircase towards her. It is upon his parents’ return that he seems most alone. The Fallen Idol effectively conveys the extent to which we can be utterly changed in a mere weekend, but its ending seems to marvel at the way that those who are ostensibly closest to us can show the feeblest comprehension of those changes.