The first of Carol Reed’s three collaborations with Graham Greene and the first volley in the NFT’s two-month celebration of the director’s work, ‘The Fallen Idol’ is a superb London film marked by outstanding performances from Ralph Richardson – then in his forties – and youngster Bobby Henrey. Richardson is Baines, the quite decent butler of the French embassy in London who, one weekend and along with his spiky wife, Mrs Baines (Sonia Dresdel) is left in charge of the palatial residence and the ambassador’s blonde, chirpy eight-year-old son, Felipe (Henrey). Felipe idolises upright, kind Baines, but loathes his wife, not least because she nags him and threatens to dispose of his secret pet snake, Macgregor. Such childish alliances and animosities take on an increasingly perverse and claustrophobic significance when, one afternoon, Felipe merrily follows Baines to a local tea-house and disturbs a tryst between the butler and his lover, fellow embassy worker Julie (Michèle Morgan), who Baines introduces to the boy as his ‘niece’ while at the same time imploring Felipe to keep their illicit meeting a secret. ‘Some lies are just kindness,’ offers Baines, while only later does Baines’ moral hiccup and ‘white lie’ trigger tragic events that embroil Felipe in an adult web of deceit that almost sinks his hero.
Lies and secrecy dominate ‘The Fallen Idol’, which handles themes of guilt and deception, responsibility and disappointment, with precision, cleverly reflecting these adult ideas off an innocent child. The economy, clarity and completeness of Greene’s script is repeated in Reed’s direction, which increasingly engulfs Felipe in the clutches of the embassy, the city and the police. Londoners will particularly savour a night-time dash through the shadowy streets and alleys of the city, cloaked in a child’s eye view of the metropolis.