By Mike Dub
*Opens Friday at the Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Carol Reed’s 1948 child noir The Fallen Idol could have easily sunk into the trappings that lazier films about children find so warm and cozy: the precocious child in an adult world, a regal butler with a heart of gold, a special secret that bonds them together, a tragedy they must overcome, and the outside world that threatens their happiness. But leave it to Graham Greene, who wrote the script based on his own short story, to take what could have been a perfunctorily heartwarming coming-of-age tale, and elevate it into a moody reflection on guilt, trust, and middle-aged angst.
The film is told through the eyes of young Philipe (Bobby Henrey), whose diplomat father and ailing mother are hardly a presence in his life. In their absence, he has formed an attachment to Baines (Ralph Richardson), the family’s charming butler. Baines regales Philipe with tall tales of his younger days as an adventurer, and cares for the child with loving affection, much to the chagrin of his cold, mean-spirited wife. When Philipe unwittingly runs into Baines and his mistress in a coffee shop one morning, the encounter sets off a chain reaction of poorly held secrets and badly told lies that ultimately leads to one person’s untimely death.
Most of the second half of the film deals with a murder investigation, and Reed’s direction draws well-deserved comparisons to Hitchcock as he expertly crafts a series of near-misses, macguffins, ironies, and wonderfully composed shots (one shot involving a paper airplane seems to nod towards Notorious). But equally deserving of praise is Reed’s direction of the first half of the film, before the police appear. Ostensibly detailing the everyday adventures and frustrations of childhood, Reed shoots predominantly in wide angles and slow movements, suffusing even the most tender scenes with the weariness of Baines’ situation, as though Philipe’s frustrated childhood is just a prelude to the stagnancy of middle age that awaits him.
That said, The Fallen Idol is a finely crafted studio picture, and it does have its share of humor. Reed gets plenty of mileage out of Philipe’s childhood ignorance, and his attempts to do the right thing, despite the unintended consequences. But rather than simply worshiping childhood innocence, Green and Reed paint childhood as a time of emotional confusion and ignorance, a time when you are powerless not only to the demands of others, but to your own lack of self control. The trouble is, adulthood might not be so different.