Screenwriter Graham Greene based 1948's Fallen Idol on his short story "The Basement Room," and the result is director Carol Reed's dark, atmospheric drama that examines the complexities of adult life from a young boy's point of view.
The story follows a young, privileged boy, Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), who gets caught in a tangle of lies. The son of a foreign ambassador in London, Phillipe is deeply attached to his butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson). Phillipe's games and walks in the park with Baines are the young boy's only joys, given his absentee parents' neglect and the sternness of Baines' wife, the housekeeper (Sonia Dresdel).
But Baines, like most of the adults in Phillipe's life, has a secret. He's having an affair with a young embassy employee, Julie (Michèle Morgan). Phillipe unknowingly uncovers the liaison, but he only knows part of the truth. When Mrs. Baines turns up dead, it seems Phillipe might be the only one who can help figure out what happened.
The adults circle around him, trying to manipulate his innocence. They try to use Phillipe to protect them, hide their secrets or squeeze him for details; the little boy is left in the middle, confused, alone and scared. Today's movie child stars play such pint-sized know-it-alls much too worldly for their years that it's hard to imagine Haley Joel Osment or Dakota Fanning pulling off the innocence of Phillipe. But Henrey is perfect (and far less bratty-seeming than most of today's young Hollywood). As Phillipe, he brings complexity to the boy, who struggles with issues of loyalty and honesty as his youthful naiveté becomes more a liability than an asset.
This classic is both intriguing and beautiful to watch. Under French cinematographer Georges Périnal, the photography often is magnificent, using the black-and-white imagery to set the tone and convey the theme of lost innocence. A game of hide-and-seek through the embassy's grand rooms has white drop cloths flying in the darkened rooms as the players uncover the furniture in their hunt. The movement creates a flowing contrast of light in the dark, showing that even a playful moment in Phillipe's world is still filled with gloom.
The big, empty embassy filled with beautiful but cold furnishings is more a prison for Phillipe than a playground. His only refuge is a tiny pet snake he hides behind a loose brick on his balcony, but even that is under threat from the cold, watchful eyes of the shrewish Mrs. Baines.
The abrupt ending has a semblance of being a happy one for Phillipe, but Reed subtly shows us that too much has been shattered for this boy. His faith in adults, his confidence and sense of security, and possibly his own curiosity have been tarnished by the adults' dark secrets. As the embassy's world bustles around him, and the adults get back to normal, he seems smaller and more alone than ever. It's a perfect final note to Reed's excellently executed, if somewhat forgotten, masterpiece.
Showing at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12, and at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 13 and 14, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.