The 1948 film The Fallen Idol, directed by Carol Reed, is a film of watching and being watched, of seeing and not seeing, of incomplete knowledge and lies and misunderstanding. It begins with the very first shot: a close-up on a young boy (Bobby Henrey), his face framed by a balustrade, as he gazes down at the brisk comings and goings of the numerous adults far below him, on the ground floor of his house. His house, as it happens, is an embassy in London, and most or possibly all of this bustle is due to the fact the ambassador (Gerard Heinz) — his father — is about to depart on a brief trip in order to bring the boy’s mother home from an eight-month-long hospital stay. Servants race to bring the ambassador’s bags out to his car; last-minute changes are made to the travel arrangements; preparations for the woman’s homecoming are discussed. Even when the boy, Phillipe (often called Phile, pronounced with a short i), descends the stairs partway in order to get a closer view, nobody appears to take the slightest notice of him save for one man: Baines (Ralph Richardson), the butler. Despite being occupied himself, Baines makes a point of acknowledging and entertaining the little onlooker. A playful hop when he empties an ashtray into the fireplace, a wink — small things, maybe, but enough to make Phile smile and to suggest the warm friendship between the two. It’s Baines, too, who says, “Master Phillipe, sir,” as the ambassador is leaving, as if to remind him to bid farewell to his son. One gets the sense that he might well have forgotten otherwise.
But Baines, in spite of his obvious fondness for the boy, naturally has his own interests and obligations, his own life. The first hint of it is relatively subtle, just a sort of lingering near the front door with a young woman (Michèle Morgan). Perhaps the two manage to exchange a few words before she departs, perhaps not; the viewer only sees them from Phile’s distant perspective at the top of the stairs. The significance doesn’t become clear until later that afternoon, when Phile spots Baines leaving the embassy, sets out after him and eventually tracks him down to a tea shop. Once again, he’s in the company of the same woman, Julie, a typist at the embassy. The boy’s sudden appearance startles them, and when he joins them at their table, they both keep glancing at him throughout their hushed conversation about Julie’s “friend” who plans to return to her home country and leave behind the man she loves. Phile watches and listens as well as being watched (at least when he’s not busy covertly feeding his pocket-sized pet snake, MacGregor), but he takes the adults’ words at face value, oblivious to their true meaning and to the emotions that Baines and Julie are trying to repress. “Is Julie your niece or something?” he asks once she leaves.
Phile, innocent and credulous, doesn’t understand the relationship between the butler and the typist, but the viewer (presumably) does, and the reason why they can’t be together is also obvious: Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), the embassy’s housekeeper and the butler’s wife. The character makes her presence felt from the opening scene of the movie — not, initially, as a complete human being, but as a shadow on the wall by the basement steps and a voice calling out her husband’s name. (It’s this interruption that puts a swift end to the meeting between Baines and Julie at the front door.) Although she shows up in the flesh shortly thereafter, there’s something apt in the fragmentary nature of her first appearance, because Mrs. Baines is the sort of person who can seize on the tiniest of details and from them paint a much larger picture, who rarely lets anything escape her notice. When she spots food residue from Phile’s visit to the tea shop on his sweater vest, she surmises that he’s been spending his pocket money on cream puffs; when he insists that “they” gave it to him, the pronoun is all that she needs to confirm her suspicions about her husband’s infidelity, despite Phile’s attempt to correct himself and claim that he only meant Baines.
Even though the meeting between Baines and Julie appears perfectly harmless in his eyes, Phile is more than willing to lie in order to protect his friend. As boy and butler walk home from the tea shop, Baines notes that his wife doesn’t like Julie and, as such, it would be best if Phile avoids mentioning this rendezvous. Phile, delighted to be sharing what Baines calls “our secret,” declares that his friend can trust him. “Mrs. Baines’ll get it out of you if she can,” Baines warns. “Oh, I’ll never let you down, Baines,” Phile replies. Without comprehending the specifics of the situation, he fully comprehends the desire — the need, even — to keep secrets from the ever-watchful Mrs. Baines, something he’s frequently forced to do on his own behalf either through sly behavior or outright falsehoods. More often than not, it’s an act of self-preservation. From his first interaction with her in the opening scene, it’s clear that the child has a difficult relationship with this no-nonsense, short-tempered woman who’s determined to keep the house and Phile himself in order: no making messes, no eating between meals and, above all, no snakes. She notices him reaching into his pocket where the snake is concealed and demands to know what he’s hiding; he produces a piece of chalk and a handful of toffees, willing to sacrifice them in order to protect his forbidden and beloved pet. Later on, at lunch, Baines helps him sneak MacGregor out of the room without attracting Mrs. Baines’s attention. With this sort of complicity between them already established, what could appear more natural and right to Phile than that he should help Baines in his time of need?
There’s a small yet noteworthy moment in that first encounter between Mrs. Baines and Phile, just after she orders him to show her what he’s hiding. “You need a mother’s care. I’ve tried to do it for months,” she says, confiscating his toffees and then tugging on his sleeve with something like affection, or at least an attempt at it. It’s hard to say how sincere her words are. Mrs. Baines demonstrates throughout the film that she’s not above manipulating people to get what she wants — witness how she suddenly becomes apologetic and ingratiating toward Phile when she hopes to glean information about Julie from him. Perhaps this is merely an attempt to convince him that she’s acting in his best interest, no matter how harsh she may seem, and that he owes it to her to behave. Then again, who’s to say that she isn’t telling the truth? She doesn’t exactly radiate conventional maternal warmth, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t making an effort in her own way to fill the gap created by Phile’s mother’s absence. Besides, the viewer only gets to witness a tiny fraction of that eight-month period. Like Mrs. Baines herself, we can speculate, but our knowledge is limited. Similarly, we never learn a great deal about the marriage between the Baineses, apart from the fact that it’s an unhappy one by the time in which the story takes place and probably has been for quite a while.
What is clear is that Phile reacts to Mrs. Baines with a mixture of fear and resentment, going so far as to tell her that he hates her when she forbids him from taking a walk with Baines after lunch. (He also refuses to say he’s sorry when she insists that he do so, though he later apologizes unprompted.) The notion that she’s spoiling his chance for fun with Baines is particularly galling to him. It often seems that Phile’s friendship with the butler is the most important bond in his life at the moment — certainly the one that he appears to value and relish more than any other. (MacGregor probably ranks a close second in his affections.) “If my mother does come back on Monday, it won’t make any difference to us, will it?” he asks Baines at one point. “Not a bit,” Baines replies. Again, the viewer can only guess at Phile’s relationships with his parents. In the first scene, when his departing father asks if he has a message for his mother, the boy wants her to know that he has something to show her and seems quite enthusiastic about it; not long after, however, he admits to Baines that he doesn’t remember her very well. His father — doubtless a very busy man — doesn’t come across as the doting type during his brief screen time, though he does lament the fact that Phile hasn’t had a haircut, which makes him look as if he’s been neglected. There’s no sign of other children in Phile’s life either, at least in the few days that the movie covers.
Phile’s feelings for Baines encompass not only friendship and affection but also admiration, even hero worship. While the middle-aged butler may cut a rather staid, conventional figure in the eyes of most people, Phile regards him as a thrilling and romantic adventurer thanks to his tales about his time in Africa, years back, before his marriage. From the outset, there’s something a tad suspect about the way that Phile has to remind Baines about certain details from his own history. When Phile refers to food as “chop,” for example, Baines is bemused until the boy explains, “You said that was what food was called in Africa.” “Oh, yes, of course. Chop,” Baines replies, raising his eyebrows. As with the Julie situation, Phile accepts the information presented to him without questioning the veracity of it — all the more so in this case because of his eagerness to believe that Baines is someone exciting. Maybe, in part, that’s why Baines tells these tales, so that he can believe in that image of himself; or, if he can’t, maybe the chance to be respected and idolized is too tempting to pass up. Phile is only a child. What’s the harm in stretching the truth or even telling complete lies, Baines may think, especially if it entertains Phile and makes him happy?
And then death enters the picture.
It comes on the heels of Mrs. Baines’s grand maneuver: pretending to leave town so that her husband and Julie will take advantage of her absence and meet up, allowing Mrs. Baines to catch them together when they least expect it. Little do Baines, Julie and Phile realize during their raucous game of hide and seek that night that an unsuspected fourth player is in the embassy, hiding and seeking in deadly earnest. Even when a mysterious shadow causes Phile to shriek, he only tells Baines that he thought he saw a ghost, and a sympathetic Baines dismisses it as a simple childish fear. Things go more or less according to plan until Mrs. Baines accosts a terrified Phile in his bed, demanding to know where “they” are. (Her presence is announced by a hairpin falling on his pillow — another fragment.) After she leaves his room and begins creeping along the hall in search of the couple, Phile follows and, spotting Baines down below, screams out his name — a warning, a cry for help. Mrs. Baines flies into a rage and attacks the boy, hitting him numerous times before getting into a physical struggle with her husband at the top of one of the staircases. In Graham Greene’s 1936 story “The Basement Room,” on which The Fallen Idol is based, Mrs. Baines suffers a fatal fall as a direct result of this confrontation; in the film, it ends without incident, with Baines telling his wife that he’ll meet her downstairs and then walking away. Death is a mere accident here, occurring moments later and involving no one except Mrs. Baines herself — but to Phile, who witnesses her struggle with Baines and her subsequent landing at the bottom of the stairs but misses the accident in between, it looks like murder. A few hours earlier, he had thrilled to the idea of Baines killing someone in Africa. (Phile calls it murder; Baines calls it self-defense.) Now, when something similar appears to happen in his own concrete, familiar and limited sphere, it sends him into a state of shock. Nevertheless, once the initial alarm starts to wane, he becomes determined to protect his friend, though his flawed understanding and the lies he tells tend instead to make Baines appear guilty in the eyes of the police. Making matters worse, Baines also feels compelled to lie in order to keep Julie’s name out of it. Add in the fact that no one except the viewer actually knows how Mrs. Baines fell, and it’s little wonder that the police start to put together an inaccurate and damning portrait of what took place.
“Perhaps she was what she was because I’m what I am. We ought to be very careful, Phile, because we make one another,” Baines says near the end of the film. Although he’s speaking about the shaping of character and personality, his words also evoke the way that people create images of themselves and others in their minds. Baines the hero, Mrs. Baines the disciplinarian, Julie the niece: Phile thinks the adults in his life are exactly how they appear to him, and when he discovers otherwise — even just glimpsing the complexities beneath the surface — it can’t help but shake up his whole perception of his world.
This post is part of the Movies Are Murder blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.
6 thoughts on “Seen and Unseen: The Fallen Idol (1948)”
What an outstanding post, Erin — it was written with as much tension as the movie itself! I’ve only seen The Fallen Idol once; I’d had it in my VHS collection for many years before I finally watched it in 2020. I hadn’t thought it would be my cup of tea, but boy was I wrong. And your post totally makes me want to dust off that tape again. It sounds even better and more nuanced than I remembered — I look so forward to checking it out again, keeping your various points in mind. Thank you for this excellent countribution to the blogathon!
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Thanks so much! Yes, there really is a lot going on in the movie. I’ve probably seen it three or four times now, and it’s always worth a revisit.
Lovely write up. This film has been hovering around my brain as a got-to-see, You make it sound so good!
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Thank you, and I hope you enjoy it!
I’ve GOT to see this film. I’ve already started looking for it online, and have only come up with a beautiful (restored) trailer so far, but I haven’t given up hope.
Thank you so much for the marvellous introduction to this film.
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You’re welcome, and thanks for reading! I have the Criterion DVD, which is out of print, though you may be able to find it at a library. It looks like it’s also available for rent on various sites (Amazon, iTunes, Google Play), at least in the United States. I would imagine, too, that it turns up on TCM from time to time.