Phillipe, the 8-year-old son of the ambassador, bored and lonely, has been left in the charge of Baines, the embassy butler, and his wife. The ambassador has gone to bring back his wife, who has been ill for several months. Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) idolizes Baines (Ralph Richardson), who talks to him, tells him stories, takes him for walks and pays attention to him. Baines' wife (Sonia Dresdel), however, is a shrew. She has little patience for Phillipe, she runs the housekeeping side of the embassy with an iron hand, and she is unshakeable in her commitment to the cold, loveless marriage she has with her husband. She doesn't know, quite yet, that Baines and Julie (Michele Morgan), a secretary in the embassy, have been meeting secretly each week for months, just for tea or a private walk. They love each other but seem to find no way to break free of his marriage. And then Mrs. Baines, after an hysterical argument when she discovers Julie, is found dead at the foot of the grand stairway in the embassy. Phillipe thinks Baines killed her and is determined to protect him. His lies make things much, much worse.
This is a marvelous film, full of irony and subtlety. Phillipe is too young to grasp the meaning of much of what he sees and hears. He unexpectedly interrupts a meeting between Baines and Julie in a tea shop. She is telling Baines she will be leaving; that their relationship is hopeless. Baines is trying to find someway for her to stay, if even for just a day or two more. Suddenly there is Phillipe, happy to find Baines, climbing onto a seat next to them, having a pastry, observing what Baines and Julie are saying to each other so quietly and intensely, and believing when Baines says they are talking about a friend and that Julie is his niece. Something is happening, he knows, but he simply doesn't register how desperately they want to talk to each other without pretense.
Phillipe tells fibs, especially to protect McGregor, his small pet snake, from Mrs. Baines' anger. When she accuses him of telling lies, Baines tries to protect Phillipe by saying that there are lies and there are lies...that some lies can simply be a kindness to protect others. Mrs. Baines finds ways to trap Phillipe into admitting he met Baines' "niece." When she dies, Baines tries to find ways to use lies...or at least not the full truth...to protect Julie. Phillipe lies to the police in an effort to protect Baines. The conclusion of the film is a masterpiece of amusing irony when we realize the truth might be more dangerous to Baines than Phillipe's lies.
Carol Reed directed The Fallen Idol in 1948. The year before he gave us Odd Man Out. In 1949 came The Third Man. Then Outcast of the Islands in 1952. That's four incredible films, one right after the other. And don't forget Our Man in Havana in 1959. The Fallen Idol, The Third Man and Our Man in Havana were collaborations with Graham Greene. These movies are not just literate and often amusing, they're thoughtful and often uneasy. And all are stunning to look at.
The Fallen Idol gives us two great performances, or rather one great performance and one performance great despite itself. Ralph Richardson as Baines is as understated as the character. We're witnessing a character full of emotion and longing, yet so carefully proper and repressed it hurts. Baines relationship with Phillipe is genuine, yet in many ways it's based on lies and made-up stories. This is one of Richardson's best performances. As Phillipe, Bobby Henrey does a masterful job, but that's because of the patience and skill of Carol Reed and the cleverness of the film editor. Henrey was a nonprofessional who got the part because Reed thought he looked exactly like the kind of young boy Phillipe would look like. As a person who worked on the film with Reed said later, Henrey couldn't act and "had an attention span of a demented flea." Reed took infinite pains to gain Henrey's friendship and confidence. He would walk the boy through the part, usually standing in for Richardson when Richardson would have been off camera feeding Henrey lines. He shot miles of film with Henrey, and then spliced the bits and pieces together into coherent reaction shots. You'll note that Henrey has almost no scenes that go for more than a word or sentence before there are cutaways. Even so, the result is a great film portrayal of a little boy, Phillipe, who can be irritating, impatient and willful, and yet touching in his determination protect his friend, Baines.
If you have an all-region DVD player, the Criterion region 1 release of The Fallen Idol includes an excellent booklet with three essays on the film and a fine 2006 documentary, A Sense of Carol Reed, with interviews from other directors. The Criterion DVD transfer is excellent.