Sunday, January 29, 2012

Carol Reed | The Fallen Idol

the case of the missing mother
by Douglas Messerli

Graham Greene (screenplay, with additional dialogue by Lesley Storm and William Templeton), Carol Reed (director) The Fallen Idol / 1948, USA 1949

Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol is a mystery movie with hardly any mystery to it. We begin with a grand exit from what is apparently the French embassy in London, as everyone, including the Ambassador says goodbye. Left behind are only the head butler and housekeeper Baines and his wife, two cleaning women, and a small boy, Phillipe (the loveable Bobby Henrey), the Ambassador's son.

     The Ambassador evidently will be away for a few days, as he mumbles something to the effect that he will be bringing "back" the boy's mother. Accordingly, right from the beginning we observe things as they may appear from the boy's point of view, a bit confusing, with an ever-present sense of mystery in the air. What soon does become clear to us, however, is the Ambassador himself has not spent much time with his lonely son. A substitute father and companion has been found in the head butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), who dotes on the boy, telling him larger than life tales about his adventures in Africa, taking him on daily walks, and sharing the secret of the boy's beloved pet snake.

    Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), on the other hand, is almost as mean and unlikeable as any Dickensian harridan. A harpy (who later snaps out at him: "You're not such a child as you pretend to be! You've got a nasty, wicked mind and it ought to be beaten out of you!"), Mrs. Baines is in near constant motion as she floats through room after room covering the furniture with white sheets and ordering any remaining workers to speed up their activities. She is such an outright monster that at lunch in their basement quarters, Philippe admits that he "hates her," for which he is punished by her taking away his food and sending him to his room. There will be no walk to the zoo with Baines on this day. The gentle but pained look on Baines' face as he sneaks the boy the box wherein lies his snake, reveals his relationship with his wife is nearly unbearable.

     In fact, Phillipe is a complete innocent, but is of that age when he is beginning to think things out, to makes sense of the adult reality which in a few yeaars he must embrace. Like Mrs. Baines, he too is nearly all movement as he flies around the large embassy, sneaking views of people from different vantages and levels of the multistoried building. Observing Baines leaving, he follows down the fire escape, but loses sight of his friend soon after.

     As he strolls down the street, staring into store windows and even asking for Baines at a nearby pub, he suddenly comes upon his friend sitting in the corner of a tea shop with a young woman who is crying as Baines pleads with her in loud whispers. The adult audience immediately suspects what is going on; Baines obviously has a girlfriend who is threatening to leave the city. But the boy, blind to reality, quickly joins them. As Baines introduces his "niece," the girl Julie—who also works in the embassy—and he continue to talk about themselves in the third person, while they simultaneously attempt to distract the boy with milk and cakes. It may well be one of the most linguistically painful scenes of any film, as the loving couple attempt to resolve their problems in the third person while simultaneously trying to restrain their intense emotions. Just as intensely the boy sits, attempting to feed his snake, while sucking in every word.

     Soon after, Baines asks the boy to keep their meeting secret, to which Phillipe, perceiving it as a sort of game, readily agrees. By evening Mrs. Baines, after detecting the word "they" in Phillipe's explanation of where he has been, also requests he keep their conversation a secret: "You can keep our secret now? Hmmm? Yes?" Suddenly we understand that the serpent in this Eden is not the boy's snake, but each of the adults as they, abusing the boy's innocence, strip it away through lie after lie.

     Pretending to visit her mother in the country, Mrs. Baines announces her departure the next morning, while Baines, boy in hand, rushes to a meeting with his girlfriend, Julie, in the zoo. Again they attempt to communicate their differences while entertaining their young charge. Phillipe, quite expectedly, is keen on visiting the Reptile House. As he stares into the cage at a cobra, the snake spits venom onto the glass, demonstrating that—just as Baines has suggested "There are lies and lies.... Some lies are just kindness"— so are there snakes and snakes. Some of them will kill you. Later, Phillipe discovers that Mrs. Baines has found his hidden snake and destroyed it!

     Returning to the embassy from their outing the two adults and child set themselves a little "picnic," and for a few moments play hide and seek with the boy with complete abandonment, as the three joyfully race through the house, pulling sheets off the furniture as they run. It is, in fact, a kind of undoing of what Mrs. Baines has so expeditiously accomplished, an exhilarating celebration of chaos. As the boy hides beneath a large dining table, the camera viewing the scene from his vantage, we hear the approaching couple coming toward him from another room while suddenly seeing at the other end of the table a pair shoes and legs—clearly those of Mrs. Baines, who has obviously remained in the house! Even their momentary joy is destroyed, with the boy at the very center.

     A short while later, Mrs. Baines faces off with her husband at the head of the long stair case, demanding to know where the interloper is. Baines attempts to quiet her, fearing the boy will hear. Phillipe has in fact already been awakened by the woman and is watching the entire scene in terror. As he runs to another level of the house to witness the scene better, Mrs. Baines moves to a higher point to see if she might glimpse her nemesis below, only to slip, falling the several floors to her death. Seeing what has happened from the new vantage, Phillipe has no way of knowing what really occurred, and can only suppose that his dear friend has pushed his wife to her  death.

Horrified by the reality he has thought he has witnessed, he runs, dressed only in his nightshirt, into the streets, racing away from anyone who might approach until he meets up with a friendly policeman who invites form a cup a tea—to be sipped, it turns out, in the police station. Queried, Phillipe will not speak, clearly out of horror, but also perhaps in fear of revealing anything more than he already has.

    At this point a strange event occurs, which, I would argue, is perhaps at the heart of the real mystery of this work. The police have recently arrested a prostitute, who in a cockney accent, humorously claims she was "just walking in her sleep." When confronted by the policemen, Phillipe suddenly goes to the woman for comfort and solace. It is the first time he has touched a woman in the entire film, and in that act we are reminded that for some he has had no mother, evidently, for some time. The prostitute, Rose (Dora Bryan) comments—just as previously has Mrs. Baines—that the boy needs a haircut, reiterating the boy's lack of maternal attention. She finally elicits his address and, ultimately, his name. "Oh, I know your father," she proclaims.

     At that point the film returns to its somewhat predictable "story," the mystery of which we have already shown, as the boy is brought home, Baines questioned, blood and fingerprints checked, etc. Questioned once more by the police, the boy continues what he believes is the protection of his hero by denying everything, even after the police have uncovered the relationship between Baines and Julie and suspect the butler of having killed his wife. Baines tells only the truth, but by refusing to say what he has seen, the boy almost convicts him. Julie finally tells Philippe that he must no longer lie: "The truth can't harm Baines. Don't you realize he's innocent?" Who is the child to believe?

     Fortunately, the expert police find the dead woman's footprint in the dirt from an overturned plant on the higher overhang from which she has fallen, and recognize that she has not been pushed. Baines is declared innocent. Now the child suddenly is determined to tell the truth, but no one will listen him, no one will hear that it was he who had overturned the pot. Try as he might to relay his honest admission—which obviously has little to do with the police's determination—he is ignored. The adult world, for Phillipe, remains incomprehensible.

     Will Phillipe continue to admire a man whom he believes actually did kill his wife and has lied to him about his African past? And what of his parents, who suddenly, at film's end, reappear? Where has Phillipe's mother really been? Some viewers have suggested that she has been in the hospital. But if so, why? And why did the Ambassador need several days to fetch her back? Was she in a French hospital? Perhaps the father has also been lying. Perhaps the couple, who seem to have been separated for some time, had marital differences. Clearly, we know the father has used the services of Rose!

     The Fallen Idol of this film is not just Phillipe's friend Baines, but is truth itself. Encouraged to lie by almost all the adults of this film, the boy can never again be sure of anything he is told. Near the end of the work, the Inspector asks Phillipe: "Shall I tell you a secret?" to which Phillipe responds emphatically, "No!"

Los Angeles, January 28, 2012

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