In the impressive filmography of British director Carol Reed, The Fallen Idol
is sandwiched between Odd Man Out
and The Third Man
--the second of three consecutive masterpieces (adapted by Graham Greene from his short story "The Basement Room") by a filmmaker at the peak of his artistic powers. Of those three, The Fallen Idol
is the most delicately subdued, but it's a flawlessly plotted thriller that achieves considerable tension through the psychology of its characters. By telling the story through the eyes of a child, the plot gains even greater urgency as a variation on the theme of "the boy who cried wolf," as young Phillipe (Bobby Henrey)--the 8-year-old son of the French ambassador to England--struggles to clear his beloved embassy butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) from being wrongfully accused of murder.
Baines is burdened with a shrewish, overbearing wife (Sonia Dresdel) whose rigid, disciplinarian control of Phillipe sets the stage for suspense; when Mrs. Baines dies in a terrible fall on the embassy staircase, her husband (who has been having a secret affair with an embassy typist) is the prime suspect. Phillipe, caught between his love for Baines and his suspicion of the butler's guilt, tries to convince investigators of Baines's innocence. But the boy's pleas are ignored, and The Fallen Idol expertly plays on the child's good but woefully misguided intentions. In Reed's visual strategy, a simple paper airplane can become the focus of almost unbearable suspense, and as incriminating evidence builds a strong case against Baines, Reed maintains that suspense to the final moments of the film. Low-key and yet still highly effective, the film received Oscar nominations for Reed's direction and Greene's adapted screenplay. --Jeff Shannon
The Fallen Idol was the first of three collaborations between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, who would later team up on the legendary The Third Man, and is a small masterpiece itself. An elegant, thrilling balancing act of suspense and farce, this tale of the fraught relationship between a boy and his beloved butler, whom the child eventually believes might be guilty of murder, is a visually and verbally dazzling knockout with enough tricks up its sleeve to stand with the best of early Hitchcock.