- Jun 13, 2002
The Fallen Idol
Studio: The Criterion Collection # 357
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 windowbox
Audio: English DD 1.0
Time: 95 minutes
Disc Format: 1 DVD-9
Case Style: Keepcase.
Theatrical Release Date: 1948
DVD Release Date: November 7, 2006
I am usually wary of any picture that features a child in a leading role, since all of the adults in the story tend to cater to the kid and dumb down the story for a potentially younger audience. I had the same impression prior to watching writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol. I was very glad to re-evaluate my bias after watching this picture.
Young Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) or “Phile”, as he’s usually referred to, is a child of status being the son of the French ambassador living in London. As Phile’s father leaves to retrieve the boy’s ailing mother, he is left in the care of the embassy’s butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson) and his shrew of a wife, Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel). Phile seems to consider these two his parents, more so than his biological ones, and he is treated accordingly: Baines plays with him and pits him against Mrs. Baines to allow the lad to be a kid, and Mrs. Baines takes care of the discipline. Phile, displaying that bit of precociousness I usually loathe, follows Baines out as he goes on an errand. He finds him sitting in a café in a deep conversation with a strange woman, Julie (Michele Morgan). Baines explains to Phile this is his niece, but through a cleverly shot bit of dialogue, we know she is his lover, and she is to the point of dumping Baines since he will not leave his wife. However, she gives Baines one more chance. As Baines and Phile leave, Baines tells the boy to keep this meeting a secret from Mrs. Baines.
Mrs. Baines is already suspicious of her husband’s activities, and she grills Phile into making a small confession as to where they were and who they were with. Baines makes a failed attempt to end his marriage, and Mrs. Baines apparently leaves. Baines and Julie take the opportunity to spend some time together with Phile in the empty embassy, chasing the boy and one another around. Mrs. Baines, being the crafty and suspicious wife, hides in the embassy to observe her cheating husband. When she makes her presence known, she and Baines argue, and Mrs. Baines winds up dead. Greene and Reed then shift the focus of the picture to allow the audience in on the truth while an official investigation into Mrs. Baines death begins. Over the remaining part of the picture, we see how the lies and secrets we tell children can be skewed through innocence and in the end, they may truly help us.
The Fallen Idol is considered one of Reed’s masterpieces, along with The Third Man and Odd Man Out. Although he is responsible for dozens of pictures, these three pictures are considered the pinnacle of his career. While Reed’s contribution to The Third Man often gets overshadowed by Orson Welles (many people confusing it as being directed by Welles), The Fallen Idol allows you to see the brilliance in his direction. Reed was a master of drawing the suspense out of the scene by using staging of his actors, geography and sets to emphasize what is being said. His use of long shots and his incorporation of architecture enhance the performances of the actors and convey unspoken truths (see, for example, the shots in the basement kitchen when Baines makes a futile attempt to leave his wife). Reed also uses dramatic lighting to heighten tensions, allowing his actors to cast long, mysterious shadows on the rain slicked, cobblestone streets, and I half expected to see Harry Lime peek out from the shadows as Phile runs around.
As much as this is a Reed piece, it wouldn’t be half as effective if it wasn’t enhanced by great performances by the four primaries, Richardson, Morgan, Dresdel, and, of course, Henrey. Henrey was basically untrained and he conveys that lack of dramatic refinement in his performance: he’s “acts” like a kid thrown in an adult world. He’s rebellious and impetuous and eager to please. Henrey (or Greene and Reed, rather) does not let Phile slip into cuteness, making him instead a little adult who just doesn’t understand what the grownups are doing, but it must be important as everyone is upset. Dresdel’s downright mean Mrs. Baines is played with little sympathy, and when her time comes, we tend to sympathize with Baines. The child is both the nexus and the vacuum around which the other characters orbit, each relying on the other to maintain their lives.
The picture is correctly framed at 1.33:1 and Criterion chose to use a windowbox on this disc, so you will see black bars all the way around. Criterion is good enough to provide us with more information about the transfer itself, so I will pass this along: “This new high-definition digital transfer was created from a 35mm duplicate negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches were removed using the MTI Digital Restoration System.” The black and white picture maintains a good grey scale throughout, with smooth whites and deep blacks. There was a noticeable instance of some white lines running down the image in chapter seven, which surprised me since, overall, this was a very nice transfer. The rest of the picture is free from dirt, but there is occasional shimmering in the picture which may be the result of gate weave. Edge enhancement was noticeable in places.
I watched the disc with the Dolby Digital 1.0 track engaged, which is the only option. Since this track is in “big fat mono”, there’s not much to it. What is there is clear and precise, but there were a couple times where the voices seemed to drop a little. Criterion tells us, “The soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm optical track negative, and audio restoration tools were used to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle.”
A Sense of Carol Reed (23:00): this is a new documentary shot this year by Criterion that features interviews with Reed’s collaborators and friends, including director John Boorman. This is a good documentary, but it’s far too short at a mere 23 minutes! While there is great material in it, I would have loved if this had been a couple hours long as I believe Reed and his work are certainly worth it.
The only other extras are an illustrated Reed filmography, which lists each of his pictures with the accompanying movie posters or stills, and the original press book, which you can skim through as you did the filmography.
Also included in the package is a 28 page booklet with essays by critic Geoffery O’Brien, author David Lodge, and Reed biographer Nicholas Wapshott. All three are worth a read (pardon the pun), especially Lodge’s contribution, which explains some of the differences between the original story and the film.
A truly collaborative example of post World War II noir, The Fallen Idol shows director Carol Reed in his prime, proving he didn’t need Welles to make an outstanding picture. If anything, this picture will only go to show you how much of The Third Man is Reed and Greene, and for me at least, it made me appreciate both pictures that much more. Criterion’s DVD exhibits a great new transfer with a few minor flaws, but a disappointing set of extras. I had really hoped we would be getting more commentary on the picture, and certainly more information on Reed. Regardless, I am glad to have this excellent picture as part of my collection.