The Fallen Idol: The Criterion Collection
Woe be unto Martin Scorsese. Eminently deserving of an Academy Award, at some point he's going to get it, and it's likely it will be for something that, like numerous Oscars won (say by Al Pacino or to bring it home Carol Reed), will be more in memorial of his earlier, greater work. Time doesn't sit well on such wins; the Academy is known for rewarding the meretricious, and films like 1968's Oliver! have aged as well as a loaf of left-out rye. And yet, when it comes to his career, it should be noted that Carol Reed directed four out-and-out masterpieces in a row. From 1947's Odd Man Out to 1948's The Fallen Idol, to 1949's internationally revered The Third Man up to 1952's neglected Outcasts of the Islands, few directors have had such a run of brilliance. Alas, Reed spent much of his later years working on pictures like Oliver! and 1965's The Agony and the Ecstasy, expending much of the goodwill those earlier pictures generated. Reed's career needs some sort of kick in the seat, and the reissues of those four films can only help. The Fallen Idol (based on a Graham Greene short story, and who collaborated on the screenplay) follows Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), the son of a French Ambassador who is mostly raised by Barnes (Ralph Richardson), and his wife (Sonia Dresdel). Mr. Barnes is very observant of the boy's needs and fills him with stories of his entirely fictional travails in Africa, while his wife is a stern disciplinarian who disapproves of Phillipe's relationship with a pet snake named McGregor. Phillipe simply wants to go out on the town with Barnes, but when he does he stumbles upon Barnes' meeting with Julie (Michele Morgan), with whom he is carrying on an affair but tells Phile that she is his niece. Learning about the need for secrets, Phillipe tries to keep it under his hat, but because he's so young his pronouns betray him and it slips out in front of Mrs. Barnes. She tells Phillipe to keep it a secret that she knows, and uses the information to monitor her husband the following day. Barnes takes Phillipe to the local zoo and to spend time with Julie, but when they return home, their evening is interrupted by Mrs. Barnes. And when an argument breaks out between the Barnes, Phile only see the beginning of their argument, and then Mrs. Barnes fatal but entirely accidental fall down a set of stairs. Thinking Mr. Barnes did it, he finds himself wandering the streets of London, only to end up with a police officer. Told the value of lying by both Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, Phillipe is torn on how to respond to the police when questioned, but can't help but leak information that points the finger at Barnes.
Told from a third person point of view near the eyes of a child, The Fallen Idol is a sneaky, great film. The plot is modest, but every performance is outstanding and Reed's control of both the child actor (which the supplements describe as being hard to wrangle) and framing is never less than outstanding. Much of this is due to the material, and yet Greene has always complemented Reed for his touch (the duo worked together three times, most famously with The Third Man), which is brilliant throughout. Like a number of masterpieces from that era (including Bicycle Thieves and Germany Year Zero) that frame a great story of a child growing up though witnessing the folly and despair of adults, The Fallen Idol is able to use that child perspective to illuminate greater human truths. And hopefully the rediscovery of this masterwork will help restore in some small part Reed's reputation. The Criterion Collection presents the film in full-frame (1.33:1 O.A.R.) with DD 1.0 audio. The source-print has some missing frames and wear, but the transfer, given the source issues, is excellent and highlights the stunning black-and-white cinematography by George Perinal. Extras include "A Sense of Carol Reed" (24 min.), a documentary on director Carol Reed's career with commentary by friends and collaborators (including directors John Boorman, Guy Hamilton and Bryan Forbes), an illustrated filmography, and the film's original press book. Keep-case.