The Fallen Idol

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The Fallen Idol

Carol Reed may be the most underrated British director of the post-World War II era, to the extent that even his best-known film, The Third Man, is routinely attributed to Orson Welles. Reed cranked out his share of inert dramas and depthless genre pieces over a 40-year career, but his best films have a sophistication and energy unlike anything produced at the time. Particularly great are Reed's three collaborations with novelist Graham Greene: The Third Man, Our Man In Havana, and The Fallen Idol. The latter is a near-masterpiece that works a simple suspense story into a resonant study of how children mature by making painful mistakes.

Bobby Henrey plays a diplomat's child who befriends his butler Ralph Richardson, sharing Richardson's confidences and loathing for his shrewish wife Sonia Dresdel. When Henrey stumbles into Richardson's clandestine lunch date with pretty young Michèle Morgan, Richardson claims she's his niece. When Henrey sees Richardson and Dresdel get into a violent argument that ends with Dresdel dead at the bottom of the stairs, he doesn't know what to believe.

Much of the criticism of The Fallen Idol through the years has been directed at Henrey, an affectless child actor whose character is whiny and annoyingly dense. But Henrey isn't meant to be wholly sympathetic, any more than Joseph Cotten in The Third Man. Reed and Greene are more interested in creating heroes who are propelled through the plot by their own weaknesses. Henrey, a child of privilege, unconsciously treats his closest friend like the servant he is, and he naturally buys into Richardson's archly superior perspective on the world. It's a mistake to call The Fallen Idol a story about lost innocence, because it's unclear whether Henrey is all that sweet to begin with.

The Fallen Idol is more about what children—and movie audiences—understand about what they see. When Henrey gets help from a kindly woman at the police station, he has no way of grasping that she's a prostitute, though even with the circumspection of the 1948 production code, the audience should get it. Viewers are meant to be less sure about the ultimate character of Richardson, a kindly rogue with an ambiguous philosophy: "It's a great life if you don't weaken."

Key features: A loving 25-minute appreciation of Reed, paying special notice to how he coaxed the inexperienced, intractable Henrey into giving a memorable performance.

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