"I hate you," goes the most explosive line in Carol Reed's marvelously plotted murder mystery, all the more powerful for being spoken by an adorable eight-year-old in short pants. We've already seen curious Phillipe (Henrey) romping around the airy chambers of France's ambassadorial mansion in London (his dad's the often-absent diplomat) and bonding with his pet garden snake, MacGregor. Phillipe's true hero, and the idol of the title, is affectionate butler Baines (Richardson), whose stern head-maid wife nonetheless has it in for the boy to an almost pathological degree.
So empathic is the movie toward its young dreamer that when complications arise, you wince on his behalf. Baines has a secret lover, Julie (Morgan), whom he meets for a chaste rendezvous in a pub; after Phillipe surprises them, Baines introduces the youngster to his "niece" and to the concept of private confidences—many of which are to follow, this being a thriller.
Reed, of course, is better known for his next movie, The Third Man, also penned by novelist Graham Greene. But The Fallen Idol is arguably the superior film; both deal with the seasoning of naive innocents, but unlike Joseph Cotten's charmingly soused pulp novelist, young Phillipe actually deserves his time in happyland, making his awakening a true stab to the heart. And Reed's signature noirish side streets work even better as the scary vistas of a boy outdoors long after bedtime. (Opens Fri; Film Forum.)—Joshua Rothkopf