“The Fallen Idol” is one of those films that can be seen as a child, and then later on seen as an adult and at both times are able to be viewed and considered through the eyes of a child. While it was Reed’s intention for the film to be seen that way, what we do not always consider as adults when viewing this film is that it is seen in the black and white views of a child’s world – that everything is either right or wrong with no gray areas.
The film opens with a scene of the vast foyer of the embassy where Philip and his parents live, as his father is an ambassador to France. His father is ready to leave for a trip and his mother is ill, recuperating in a hospital and does not make an appearance in the film until the very end. Luckily, Philip’s best friend is the family butler, Baines, and spends all of his free time with the kindly man. The only problem is Mrs. Baines, also in the employ of Philip’s father, considers Philip to be a nuisance, consuming time that Baines should be spending on his job. Unknown to Mrs. Baines, her husband has taken a personal interest to a secretary at the embassy, Julie, who he meets in confidence outside of the embassy. Philip eventually follows Baines and discovers that he is having a personal conversation with her at a teahouse. From then on, Philip enters the world of adult experiences, something which is he not shielded from, quite possibly due to his rather sophisticated urban life: he is, after all, the son of an ambassador. Like all children his age, he has a tremendously inquisitive mind, trying to understand the world of adults and even though he easily parrots the conversations he hears from the adults he lives with, his undeveloped mind cannot clearly understand the relationships Baines has with his wife and with Julie. Mrs. Baines is a strong character in the film and in the very beginning of the film; it is clear who is boss in the relationship: she is. Baines is retiring in his attitude towards his wife and manages to escape her through spending time with Philip, and when he can, with Julie, the pretty blonde secretary.
Philip is becoming more aware of the true nature of the relationship Baines has with Julie and he is stuck in between them. Baines tells Philip to keep what he knows a secret, but it can be difficult for a child to remain silent about certain adult issues. This only leads to further difficulties. Mrs. Baines learns what her husband is doing behind her back, to the point of where she stays hidden in the shadows one night when Baines, Julie and Philip have dinner together one night, then afterwards, play a game with the sheets covering the furniture in the embassy’s dining room. The three of them run around the room, while Baines switches the lights on and off repeatedly. It is only when Philip is finally told to go to bed by Baines when things start to unfold – Mrs. Baines sneaks into the boy’s room and knowing how Philip repeats what he hears to everyone he knows, is assured that he will tell her what transpired that evening among the three of them. Philip tells her nothing and pretends to fall asleep until he hears her fighting with her husband and observes only part of the events of the movie’s climax. Mrs. Baines falls to her death down the stairs, which is how he saw it happen, even though the end of the film reveals something entirely different. Philip thinks Baines murdered her but he wants to believe that he is innocent in the entire matter.
Philip races outside into the night, barefoot, in his pajamas, for what seems like blocks until he meets with a friendly policeman, who assumes the boy is frightened and lost. Philip finds himself taken to the police station where he is encouraged to tell them why he was out late at night but he is too afraid to tell them what he saw. Once the police station receives a call about the death incident at his home, 48 Chelsea Square, Philip is starting to believe Baines is responsible for the death of his wife. Dishonest statements from the boy lead authorities to believe Baines is hiding something from them.
Reed’s direction in the film is remarkable, making it timeless, even after the fifty years it has been made. There are in fact repeated shots of certain parts of the set that reveal a number of things both clear and unclear to the boy’s view of what happens around him. The black and white checkerboard floor of the foyer is just one but even more importantly is the gray shadow of the banister on the staircase. The shadow itself is a series of spirals that keep heading downward and downward and become more obvious once the boy thinks that Baines somehow pushed his wife down the stairs. This gray shadow becomes the gray area of Philip’s view; that what he thought he saw really happen, did not happen.
The gray spiral shadows throughout the movie seem to plunge deeper in the last quarter of the film, between the time Baines tells the policeman what happened and when Philip tells them his version of the story. The police of course take Baines side at first since they are more likely to believe an adult than a child who is prone to making up wild stories and lies. The gray areas seem to disappear at that point and only arise again at the end when the detective discovers how Mrs. Baines really died. But up to that time, the black and white views of the child’s world become distorted, to the point where the colors are reversed: what was white is now black, and what was black is now white. The note regarding the affair Baines is having with Julie is symbolic in that it has been neatly folded into a paper airplane by Philip then carelessly tossed into a plant, remaining hidden until the end of the film.
Ralph Richardson is delightful as Baines, playing the role convincingly as the peckered husband but loyal friend to Philip. Michele Morgan is the beautiful blonde Julie who radiates the gentle, maternal personality that a young eight year-old boy needs in his life. Mrs. Baines is portrayed by Sonia Dresdel, the dark haired, sharp featured wife who endlessly terrorizes Philip once she finds out her husband is having an affair with another employee at the embassy. Torin Thatcher is the policeman Philip meets up against in the dark of night, who wants to gently help the boy and personally delivers him home once he learns where Philip lives. Bobby Henrey’s performance as Philip is unadulterated as much as a child’s could be. The character of Philip can be any boy, anywhere in the world who witnesses adult situations since it is impossible for any child to be completely alone by himself, especially a privileged boy like Philip. If “The Fallen Idol” were to be remade today, however, there would undoubtedly be a character in the film to utter the words, “The boy needs a shot of Ritalin.”
Well scored, especially during the film’s climax, “The Fallen Idol” will always appeal to a wide audience, if not for the child’s world view, and how could it not, when any modern society becomes child-centered overnight. Viewers will either love the character of Philip, or love to dislike his unseemly behavior in the world of adults, ruining their lives even if unintentionally. “The Fallen Idol” is a film worth seeing for its artistic work, animadversions of children by adults, and a well-written script adapted from Graham Greene’s story with the same title.