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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Fallen Idol

idol_poster1

Director: Carol Reed
Country: UK
Year: 1948

Background

Carol Reed, director of today’s Janus delicacy, was born in 1906 and died in 1976. Interestingly, in light of the subject of today’s film, Reed was the offspring of an illicit affair between the impresario Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (Oh my sweet lord how I love that name) and his mistress, May Pinney Reed. In fact, Carol was only one of six illegitimate children sired by the fecund Sir Tree, who was a stage actor, dramatics teacher, and founder of the Royal School of Dramatic Arts. Wee Carol wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his mother, desiring a more sensible occupation for her son, sent him to Massachusetts to work on a chicken farm.

Hey, I live in Massachusetts! Have I mentioned that?

Carol, however, didn’t much cotton to the early hours and the overpowering, eye-watering stench of chicken feces, so he returned to England to join the stage company of Dame Sybil Thorndyke. No, I am not making up these names. Later, he made a living by writing, and starring in, stage adaptations of the books of Edgar Wallace. Who is this “Edgar Wallace,” you say? Why, Edgar Wallace has had more of his novels made into films than any other 20th century author; he came up with that King Kong idea, among other things. Here’s just one random line from his Wikipedia entry: “Unaware that the half-sister he did not know existed had just died, Edgar enlisted in the Infantry preparatory to leaving for South Africa.” That, my friends, is a man who lived. Later, Wallace turned his attention to films, and Reed followed. He landed a job as dialog director at historic Ealing Studios, worked his way up, and began producing and directing his own films.

Today’s film is one of three directed by Reed which were adapted from books by Graham Greene, who was quite a colorful character in his own right, and certainly deserving of an entire article, but you and I both know these reviews are running a bit long. Later in this series, we’ll see another Greene-penned, Reed-directed film, The Third Man. Which is a FUCKING MASTERPIECE.

Carol Reed directed 33 films (give or take), was knighted in 1953, and won the Academy Award for Best Director in 1968 for the musical Oliver! He is the uncle of Oliver Reed and the stepfather of Tracy Reed. He is not, to the best of my knowledge, related to either Robert Reed or Carol Channing.

Synopsis

Today’s film opens in a Masterpiece Theater-worthy mansion, complete with a vast entryway and an ominous, winding marble staircase. We know that the marble staircase is important because the titles of the film are projected on a marble background. (Foreshadowing!)

The mansion is eventually identified as the French embassy in London. Staff is bustling about, preparations are underway; The Ambassador is leaving, to retrieve his wife from the hospital. No explanation is given, but I’ll lay odds that she’s in the hospital for her “nerves” or possibly a “case of the vapors” brought on, no doubt, by her husband’s habit of frequenting prostitutes.

We observe these introductory scenes – and, indeed, much of the rest of the film – through the eyes of a young boy, Phile (short for Phillipe, inexplicably), the Ambassador’s neglected son. You know the type: precocious, blonde, asks too many questions, keeps a pet snake in his pocket.

Throughout the commotion in the embassy, Phile silently watches the butler, Baines. A few sideways looks and winks tell us that Phile looks up to Baines. More than that: Baines seems to be Phile’s only ally in a house heavy with secrets and as-yet-unexplained tension.

Phile sees Baines talking privately to a young woman. To adult viewers more familiar with the mechanics of garden variety adultery, this is immediately suspicious. Phile, however, is a child, and suspects nothing, handily proving my central thesis: Children are Idiots.

As an unrelated side note: Baines (played by the venerable Ralph Richardson) looks an awful lot like Kevin Spacey in this film.

Phile’s declared enemy in the house is Baines’ wife, the witch-like Mrs. Baines. She hectors Phile without mercy, and she’s equally grouchy to her husband. Baines has a gun hidden in a sideboard, and spins outrageous stories to Phile about a man he (allegedly) killed in Africa: “…that was self-defence. The blackies planned what they call a rising. I was the only white man for miles around…” Make of that what you will.

Mrs. Baines scolds her husband for his lies. “There are lies and there are lies,” he counters, coolly.

“What do you mean?” demands his wife.

“Some lies,” Baines elaborates,”are just… kindness.”

Indeed.

For his lies – or because he has dirty feet, or possibly for keeping a snake in his pocket – Mrs. Baines sends Phile to his room. Later, Phile sees Baines leaving the house alone. Thinking quickly, he slips out via the fire escape to follow his beloved mentor. Before he locates Baines, he looks hungrily in the window of a pastry shop, and observes bees crawling on a cake. Symbolism? Perhaps. More importantly, who should he see inside the pastry shop but Mr. Baines! With a young woman! The same young woman that he was talking to earlier!

What is going on here? As mentioned previously, you and I, who have engaged in our fair share of illicit relationship skullduggery, know EXACTLY what’s going on. Why, I remember a time… but that’s beside the point. Back to our story:

The young woman’s name is Julie, she works as a typist in the embassy, and she is very, very beautiful. As Phile fidgets and eats his cream bun, the adults speak to each other, elliptically. “Your friend…” Baines asks Julie. “Is she really leaving? Doesn’t she know that, er, the man, I mean her friend, will be devastated?” and so on. Finally, Julie breaks down and cries out bitterly: “I wish I were dead!” Phile looks on, blank-eyed and clueless, chin covered with cream bun crumbs. Stupid, stupid Phile.

“L’amour?” asks Baines.

“L’amour eterne,” replies Julie. In French.

Baines promises he will sort it all out by tomorrow: “I’ll tell her ‘Look, what’s the use? You and I don’t get on anymore.’ Perhaps she’ll see…”

Julie, clearly a bit sharper than the love-addled Baines, is not optimistic: “She’ll never let you go.”

As they walk home, Baines enlists Phile’s cooperation in a minor bit of deception: “There’s no need to mention to Mrs. Baines that you met Julie…” and thus the lying begins.

Back at the embassy, Mrs. Baines kills Phile’s snake. As punishment for crying, Phile is again sent to his room. Unbeknownst to the Baines, he stops on the kitchen stairs and listens to their ensuing argument.

“I’ve tried to make a go of it, so have you,” Baines points out, sensibly. “But we only make each other miserable.” Mrs. Baines responds, predictably, by threatening to hang herself: “You’ll feel fine when you read about it in the Sunday papers! You’ll be able to say: ‘That was me. I did that.'”

Later, in Phile’s room, Mrs. Baines nags at him for not eating his supper, until she notices the pastry crumbs on his shirt. “So that’s why you’ve lost your appetite – buying cream buns!” “I didn’t!” Phile protests. “I won’t put up with any more lies from you!” hisses Mrs. Baines. “You’re becoming a regular little liar!”

“I didn’t!” Phile protests again. “They gave it to me!” D’oh!

Leaving his room, Mrs. Baines extracts a promise from the hapless boy: “You and I have a secret – that I know about them.”

The next day, Mrs. Baines has gone to see her Aunt Hilda… or so she claims, in a suspicious telegram delivered to the kitchen door. Actually, though, she’s hiding in the pantry, hoping to catch her husband and the typist in flagrante delicto. And when I say “in flagrante delicto” I mean “having intercourse with each other.” Not wasting a second, Baines phones Julie and begs her to come to supper. “It makes no difference about the boy,” he reassures her. “…he doesn’t understand.”

The truth of this is reinforced when Phile stupidly folds the telegram into a paper airplane and idly tosses it into a nearby house plant.

That evening, Julie joins Baines and Phile at the house for supper. While the secret lovers look into each other’s eyes, half-crazed with unconsummated longing, Phile keeps asking inconvenient questions: “Is it important to keep secrets? Even if you don’t like the person?”

Later that night, Phile goes to sleep. Julie and Baines also retire to a bedchamber, but not to sleep, if you take my meaning. And when I say “not to sleep” I mean “to have intercourse with each other.” The creepy Mrs. Baines appears at Phile’s bedside: “Where are they?” she demands. “You know all about them! You’ve got a nasty, wicked mind, and it ought to be beaten out of you!” Which she proceeds to do.

The inevitable Baines v. Baines title bout takes place at the top of that foreboding marble staircase.

Baines and the missus struggle, but he eventually breaks away and returns to his bedroom to warn Julie, as Mrs. Baines calls down damnation upon them: “I’ll put you and her in the gutter! I’ll get you deported!”

Mrs. Baines climbs to a dangerous ledge, hoping for a glance into her husband’s bedroom window. Finally, she slips and falls to her death at the bottom of the marble staircase, and the incessant shrieking comes to an end.

Baines hears her fall and runs to her lifeless body. Phile, who did not see the fatal fall, assumes Baines killed her… you know, in self defence, just like that time in Africa. Terrified and confused, Phile flees the house and is eventually picked up by a kindly British Bobby (are there any other kind?).

When the police return Phile to the embassy, Baines manages to pull him aside. I’ve already told the police that Mrs. Baines had dinner with us, he tells the boy. That telegram might, then, seem suspicious. Can you remember where you put it? But it’s hopeless. The slack-jawed dummy has no idea.

Baines goes down to talk to the coppers, whose questions are becoming increasingly difficult to answer.

Phile, of course, chooses this moment to remember where he threw the telegram/airplane. He retrieves it, but his efforts to deliver it to Baines are short-circuited when the family doctor takes it from him and absently tosses it down the staircase, into the vast central entryway. In a stunningly executed shot, the incriminating airplane glides slowly in a circular path around the entryway, its every movement followed by the anguished eyes of Baines and Phile, coming to a rest, finally, at the feet of the Chief Inspector.

And… FADE OUT!

Well, not really. That’s how I wish the film would have ended, but instead it dragged on for another twenty minutes or so: Phile twisting himself tighter and tighter in his desperate, childish attempt to save his friend, further ensuring his need for future therapy; Baines making a series of terse statements to the police, each a fraction of an inch closer to the truth; Julie admitting that she and Baines had been, ahem, “intimate” for the first time that night; Baines considering suicide in the kitchen (you know, with that red-herring gun); and so on. Eventually, the police discover proof that Mrs. Baines’ death was accidental, Baines is cleared of all charges (and, we assume, cleared for takeoff vis-à-vis Julie), the Ambassador and his wife return, and we all (particularly Phile) learned a valuable lesson.

What I Liked

I seem to be saying this a lot recently, but the cinematography in this film is phenomenal. What’s that word that means high-contrast black and white? Chiaroscuro? Yeah, that. Plus beautiful deep focus shots, rigorous composition, brilliant use of architectural space in service of the story – every frame of this film is a source of fresh delight.

Then there are the actors, who are uniformly excellent. Sonia Dresdel as Mrs. Baines is truly scary and believably domineering, but never descends into caricature. At moments, I actually felt sorry for her. Michèle Morgan as Julie is beautiful and I was mesmerized every time she came on screen. Thankfully, she plays a complete person, not just a prop; every look, every precise movement, the delivery of every line tells us of her intelligence, her genuine struggle to do the right thing despite temptation. The part of Julie could have been a thankless, bland role, but Michèle Morgan is vibrant and compelling. And beautiful.

Apparently, she was originally slated to play Ingrid Bergman’s role in Casablanca. Finally, there’s Ralph Richardson. The guy has been in a bazillion films, including Rollerball, Dragonslayer, and Time Bandits, but I always imagine him as an old man. In this film, he is playful, spry, absolutely believable as the besotted Baines. He’s one of those classically-trained British stage actors, and every single movement, every gesture, every expression, turn of the head, twitch of a facial muscle is precisely calibrated.

Finally, there’s the dialogue. The razor-sharp verbal attacks by Mrs. Baines, the elliptical conversations of the lovers, the working-class carping of the other embassy servants, the sly questioning by the police – all are rendered with a taut precision. This movie is kind of like a Harold Pinter play – where the characters tear each other to shreds, but never say quite what they mean – directed by Hitchcock, with his adeptness at droll humor and finely-tuned suspense.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Some reviewers praise Bobby Henrey, who plays the boy, Phillipe. I didn’t much care for him, for the same reason I don’t usually like child actors: he’s just not a very skilled or nuanced actor. No range. This seems especially obvious when the child actor is surrounded by a particularly juicy cast of adult actors, like in this film.

My primary complaint about this film, as described in my synopsis above, is the ending. Everything about this film told me that it was headed for a tragic ending. Baines and Julie, no matter how sympathetic, needed to be punished for their lies. I’m not saying that based on some sense of cosmic morality; I’m saying that based on the recognized rules of this type of film. This is, at its heart, a classic noir, where one poor decision delivers a decent man to the gates of hell. In this case, however, the screenwriter chickened out, and allowed the adulterous lovers to escape relatively unscathed, which was much less satisfying.

Should You See It?

If you like Hitchcock, terse police procedurals, British-flavored sexual repression, film noir, or youth’s innocence crushed under the bootheels of selfish adult lust, then YES. If you think black-and-white movies are boring, or if you will be disappointed in a film that never actually shows you the delectable naked flesh of its two romantic leads, then NO.

Next: Fires on the Plain

5 Comments

  1. Now THIS is my kind of adultery! The man, Baines the butler, has every reason to want to leave the very unpleasant wife (anyone who incinerates a pet, no matter the type, is vile!), and he tells her he wants out of the marriage. The other woman, Julie, is a kind and beautiful lady, who shows just the right amount of angst and conflict about the affair. Add the complication of the triangle’s young “charge,” Phillipe, and it makes the usual story much more interesting. The director did a splendid job of telling the tale from many different angles. It was so evenly balanced, it was as if there were no leading actors.

    This was such an enjoyable film! My favorite scenes were: 1) the hide-and-seek game, with the accidental addition of the fourth player; and 2) of course, the paper airplane. The director strings us right along with the characters:

    Oh, no! the plane is headed right into the pool of detectives!
    Oh, no! it landed right next to the shoe of one of them!
    Maybe he won’t notice.
    Oh, no! he’s picking it up!
    Maybe he won’t unfold it.
    Maybe he will throw it back.
    Oh, no! he’s unfolding it!
    Aaaaack! He’s reading it!
    Baines is doomed!
    How horrible!!

    Watching the worst possible turn of events unfold and seeing what the characters do was most deliciously uncomfortable. Having diplomatic status could give Baines the protection of immunity, but that would cause his employer some difficulty and make things rather messy. And if there’s anything a butler doesn’t like, it’s messiness, so he gives himself up. But then the truth is found out, even if by the wrong clues, and he lives through it all. Whew!

    In today’s popular films, we the audience are often left in the dark, right along side the protagonists, about what the heck is going on in the story, and we have to either figure it out or try to be ready for the surprise at the end (or, in the case of “Burn After Reading,” in the middle). With this film, we know what happened, and we get to watch those on the Big Screen try to figure it out, or try to get out of their self-made predicament. I loved the subtle complexity of this film. It doesn’t grab you by the … er … throat, like “Burn,” and in my opinion, because of its refined telling, the tale lingers longer and more vividly.

    I don’t think Phillipe was necessarily convinced of the truth of what really happened, but I loved the lesson he learned about not wanting to know any more secrets. I re-learn that one every now and then, too.
    🙂

  2. This is one I will need to see now.

  3. I also love when she says something like: “Do you want to come back to my place?” And the cops all look at her and she shrugs her shoulders. The thing I absolutly love about both “Idol” and “Encounter” – and I think you mentioned this – was the spot on support casting. It always seems uniformly excellent.

    Or maybe it’s just the accents that makes me think they act better…

  4. I loved the throwaway line in the police station, when they figure out the kid is the son of the Ambassador, and the prostitute brightens and says, “Oh! I know yer dad!”

  5. I LOVE MOVIES! I especially love movies like this one… “The Fallen Idol”

    Now, before I get into the review, it reminds me of a couple things:

    1. Steven Spielberg once said: “Suspense is what you think is going to happen…doesn’t. Surprise is what you don’t think is going to happen…does.”

    2. The Chekov Theory that states: “When you show a gun in the first act, it better be used in the 3rd act.”

    The other thing I love about this film is that it just goes to show you that you can make a nail-biting suspense film set in one location with just a handful of characters. You don’t need a huge budget, weird camera angles, elaborate special effects, absurd twists, tons of expository language, brutal acts of violence and blood-letting, to get the hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end.

    Oh, yeah, what about the film?

    With most of these films – I have no idea what they’re about as I go into them. I liken this to the time I watched some 200+ Public Domain films. I had very little knowledge about them. Granted 190+ of them sucked and this collection is heads or tails above most of those – except for maybe “Black Orpheus” – KIDDING! So…with a title like “The Fallen Idol” – I expected some film akin to “A Star is Born” about some guy (or gal) who has made it big and, thus, “falls” – shattering those around him (or her).

    Instead what you get is a film about a small boy (Phillip) and his friendship with a head house servant by the name of Baines. The small boy lives in the French Embassy in London. His father, a diplomat is busy while his mother is out of town on some sort of business (never really explained) – Jason notes she was in the hospital – I missed that – oopsy. The boy finds his friendship in the arms of Baines and his beloved garter snake “McGregor.” Baines has taken a liking to the boy regaling him with stories of adventure in Africa (including killing a man in self defense), and spoiling the boy with treats like taffy. Baines has also confided in the boy that there is a pistol in a drawer in the basement and it’s not loaded but there are bullets with it…(this will come into play later – see “Chekov Rule Above”). Early on in the story Phillip even takes the gun and bullets out to show everyone – that is when he’s not playing with his snake.

    It is soon announced that mother will be coming home but just as soon as that announcement is made and people leave to go retrieve her…we’re told that “Misses Baines” is in “one of her moods.”

    We quickly learn that you need to avoid “Misses Baines” as she’s a bitch on wheels and has no time for Phillip’s gallivanting around and eating taffy and within moments Phillip is sent to his room without lunch after he admits to her that he hates her. Still, he wanted to go for a walk with Baines but that didn’t look like it was an option now that he was banished.

    Phillip, though, is a plucky little kid and when he, from his balcony, saw Baines leave went in pursuit of him by way of the back fire escape. No X-Box 360 for THIS kid.

    Checking the bar first, Phillip finds Baines in a Starbucks (might as well have been) with a beautiful gal. This gal is a secretary who works for the French Embassy. And you know right away that the way that Baines touches her arm that this isn’t a “spot of tea” but a rendezvous.

    Now that Phillip has wormed his way into the situation Baines and the woman talk in code to get across how they are really feeling. Doing that old standby: “This, uh, sister of yours…does she HAVE to leave?” Seems that the young woman is going away soon…she can’t bear being in the embassy with Baines and his bitch of a wife.

    Baines is suffering, though. He informs her that everyone has left to go get Phil’s mother and could they meet the next day. Maybe go to the zoo with little Phil. She agrees.

    On the way back to the Embassy Baines suggests to Phil that he not mention the woman to Misses Baines. Phil assumes, or is told, that the woman is Baines niece.

    Secret tucked away in the back of the boy’s head (I think he’s about 5 years of age – maybe 6 or 7), he returns home and sneaks upstairs where he puts his snake to bed. Misses Baines wonders what he is doing out on the patio and investigates after she tells him to go downstairs and get his tray. Though we never see her pick up the snake, in a few moments she tosses a tissue wrapped item into the incinerator.

    As Phil leaves with his tray Baines finally tries to break free from his shrewish wife. Using the old standby: “I need my space.” Phil watches them argue and then heads up to his room. When Misses Baines comes up to check on him, the little scamp lets out that he was with Baines and that Baines was with his niece.

    With the evidence now stacking up against Baines, Misses Baines bribes Phil to keep quiet with THEIR secret now.

    Plan in mind, the next day Misses Baines “leaves for her mothers” – I put that in quotes because, you know, she doesn’t actually leave – but hides out in the embassy to catch her “playa” of a husband red-handed.

    With the entire house empty now Baines pleads for the secretary to come over. There is no one else home! So they go to the zoo where Baines and the secretary cuddle where-ever they can.

    Returning home there is a telegram. Misses Baines is staying on at her mothers for another day. GLORY! The house is all theirs and there’s some consummating that needs to be done. But first…what about the child? What better than to tire him out with a game of hide-and-seek which they play. Blissfully happy, blissfully unaware that danger lurks in the house, Phil gets put to bed but only after he saw a “ghost” (Misses Baines). To calm him, Baines lights TWO night-lights. The better to help him sleep so Baines can get to knocking boots.

    Within moments though, in a horrific shot, Misses Baines wakes the boy up and starts inquiring as to where her husband is. He doesn’t know. So she goes in search, hoping to catch them with their pants down.

    When Phil goes to Baines’ rescue, Misses Baines starts slapping the boy around. Baines attempts to stop her and in the process they start struggling. The boy, scared shitless at this moment, escapes out the fire escape and starts running down it as quickly as possible.

    Misses Baines confronts Mr. Baines and they start screaming at each other. She KNOWS there’s a woman there in the guest bedroom and she must get to her to confirm her fears. Since Baines is blocking the door, the best way is to teeter on a ledge and go through a large window that opens from the bottom (something we see Phil do early on in the story – and in the process spill dirt from a planter).

    Baines goes to stop his love from getting involved and while he’s out of sight, Misses Baines slips on the large window, falling to the stairway below…dead. Baines rushes out only to see her rolling down the last few steps.

    Phil, who glances in the window (and only saw Baines and her arguing), assumes that Baines pushed her to her death. He runs out into the cold dark, beautifully shot, black and white night.

    Baines, panicked now, sends his love interest home. To keep her out of the situation. He will lie to protect her.

    Finally a cop picks up a shocked Phil. The only person who can really get any information out of the boy is the local prostitute who got picked up even though “it’s not her day.”

    By this time the call has come in and everyone heads back over the embassy.

    Here is one of the better aspects of the script…had the story been told in just a cheap boarding house or even an estate you can figure that the cops would have hauled Baines off to jail within moments. But since the scene of the crime is the French Embassy and, strictly, a small part of France, well…there are protocols to be figured out – which makes Baines stew even more – even if the only thing he is guilty of is loving an attractive blond (and who HASN’T loved an attractive blond?).

    With the spotlight focused on Baines he finds every opportunity he can find to encourage Phil to lie, to stretch the truth, to keep his mouth shut. But the evidence isn’t holding up and the story keeps shifting. When the secretary shows up on a Saturday to “finish a project I got started” – she gets involved to take notes on the situation. The lies flow fast and furious and glances and telegrams and all kinds of evidence seems to point directly at Baines as a maniacal creep who pushed his wife down the stairs in a fit of range.

    As they are about to head down to the station Baines heads to the basement to get his hat. Of course…we know that the pistol is in the basement and there are bullets next to it. As the noose tightens around him you ask yourself…what will Baines do?

    I will end this review here as this film should really be watched to fully get the enjoyment of it. (unless, of course, Jason said everything you need to know above)

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Well, pretty much everything. The quality of the film, except for one JARRING cut, is outstanding. Criterion did a great transfer job. The actors are all wonderful, even the little boy does a very good job with his lines and minimal acting.

    There are other touches that raise this film above others, not the least of which is the usual spot-on casting of talented actors for small roles such as detectives, hookers, or maids.

    The other thing I think is great about the film is that once we know that Misses Baines died by her own hand, basically, by sliding off the large window – when the detectives and coroner are going around the house, the large window always seems to be in the background of the shot. You’re constantly looking at it and thinking…when are they going to know? When are they going to figure it out?! It’s RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

    Misses Baines is a pretty one-dimensional character and her “going ‘round the bend” came a little quickly. And the boy’s acting does suffer once in a while to the sort of cutesy line readings one gets.

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Great film. Wonderful. Watch it. Now.

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