The Fallen Idol is a fascinating film for how it manages to develop inner turmoil. It’s earnestly interested in the point of view of a child and as such, it functions on multiple levels – that of both kids and adults. Philippe’s (Bobby Henrey) home is the French embassy, as his father is an ambassador who is always away on the job. So Phil’s a little boy who is perpetually in the care of servants. Namely, the authoritarian Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) and her good-natured husband (Ralph Richardson).
It seems like he has a fairly cushy life, allowed to have his run of the embassy, play all the time, and eat three square meals a day. He diverts himself with numerous trifles like any good little boy would, including an affinity for his pet snake McGregor. Meanwhile, Mrs. Baines is constantly pestering and prodding him to behave. Simultaneously, Mr. Baines continually affirms his boyish nature. It’s no secret which one Philippe likes better.
This triangular relationship is vital to The Fallen Idol, but it’s only the jumping-off point. Because Mr. Baines, rather understandably, is unhappy in his marriage. It’s not working out for him, and to complicate matters further, he has met another woman (Michele Morgan) whom he dearly loves and who loves him in return. Of course, the one moment he goes off to meet her in confidence, the mischievous, prying eyes of Phillipe finds them, but he does not fully comprehend what he is seeing – what they are talking about in hushed voices – as he nibbles away at tea cakes and pastries.
The nuances of the events at hand are extremely earnest between two deeply concerned adults who fear never being able to be together. But again, as a young boy, Philippe doesn’t quite understand the subtext of all that is going on. How could he? Carol Reed does a wonderful job of conveying this through some simple camerawork throughout the story. It always seems like Philippe’s point of view is either from the distant staircase looking down at the figures below, or he is looking up at the adults who tower above him. There’s always a pronounced distance, a gap that must be forged. And all of this suggests just how far removed he is from the events swirling around him.
Dirty Little Secrets
At this juncture, Mr. Baines asks him to keep their secret and they go on an escapade to the zoo together. Philippe is happy with the reptile house and other animals, while Mr. Baines is soaking up his final moments with Julie before she goes away. She can’t bear to not be with him. Still, Phil is uninterested in the whole business. There are no stakes in this for him. He’s preoccupied with his own diversions. If anything, this other person is a nuisance, distracting Baines from giving his full attention to Phillipe.
Still later, when some stray words slip out, Mrs. Baines puts two and two together. Now she is asking Phillip to keep their own little secret. He’s been asked to hold onto two conflicting secrets now and he doesn’t quite know how to respond. His mind’s convictions about lying and truth telling are tied up in knots, and they remain that way for the entire film.
The final act is even tenser, as Baines must cope with the tragic aftermath of his wife’s death. She was confronting him about his love, but that’s hardly the most interesting part. At this point, Phil thinks he knows what he saw and he doesn’t want to tell on Baines. In his eyes, Baines did something wrong, but he likes Baines. There’s this troubling moral dichotomy that’s created in his little head. When the police inspector comes in digging around for the truth, the boy’s no help and Baines’ story is highly suspect at best.
Everything young Philippe does in an attempt to help vindicate his hero only serves as a hindrance for the man he idolizes. His allegiances were manipulated and by the end, his cries to be listened to are all but disregarded. Rightfully so.
However, when all is done he scampers down to his returning mother joyously, completely ignorant of the bullet that Baines has dodged. It’s the perfect ending, summing up a film about a child embroiled in something far above what he can even begin to fathom.
He doesn’t quite understand that Julie is not Mr. Baines niece. He doesn’t know what Mr. Baines meant when he was bickering with his wife about his freedom. Or even that the lady that he clings so closely to in the police station is a streetwalker. That’s what makes the performance that Reed teases out of his actor that much more impressive, because it gets that obliviousness and confusion across exquisitely.
In truth, Reed’s The Fallen Idol brings to mind two other British classics of the 1940s. The first is Rebecca, with Mrs. Baines asserting her domestic dominance rather like the unnerving Mrs. Danvers, played by Judith Anderson. Furthermore, the heartbreaking nature of infidelity in this film also calls to mind David Lean’s heart-wrenching romance Brief Encounter. Both narratives examine adultery with a certain amount of empathy, realizing that adulterers are rarely abhorrent individuals but folks crippled by loneliness and apathy.
However, again, what sets The Fallen Idol apart is the perspective of a child. It’s an innocent way of trying to make sense of the world – a world that is so often confused, ambiguous, and complex. The beauty of being young is that same naivete. Because it can work both ways. Adults generally comprehend the intricate inter-workings of the world, but are also the ones so often weighed down by troubles.
But in Phil’s case, so much has gone on and he has witnessed and done so much over the course of this tragic story. Yet when his mother walks through the embassy doors, he cannot help but be happy to see her. All else fades away. That innocence remains to the end. That is the irony at the core of this tale. It chronicles a day wrought with so much conflict, and yet when it’s all said and done, for Phillipe it’s just another day in his life.
Are there are other films that come to mind that are similar to The Fallen Idol where a great deal of interest is placed in a child’s perspective?
The Fallen Idol was originally released on October 28th, 1948 in the U.K. It can be streamed on Amazon.