CAROL REED FOR THE FALLEN IDOL (1949)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives
Robert Rossen for All the King’s Men
William A. Wellman for Battleground
William Wyler for The Heiress
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol and The Third Man unfold at opposite poles of the same world. At first glance, the grand London embassy in which The Fallen Idol is set, particularly through the playful eyes of the young Phile, stands in stark contrast to the blasted shell of Vienna as seen by outsider Hollis Martin. However, as Phile and Hollis blunder into the fragile equilibrium of secrets that sustain their respective worlds, both open up into the same morass of challenging truths. Each film, adapted from Graham Greene’s work in close collaboration between director and author, concerns itself with the moral dilemma of our inherently limited perception of the world around us. Both stories hinge on the misperception of a death, the true cause of which stands in irreconcilable contrast to the clean official report. While I promise not to keep belaboring the comparison, given the imbalanced renown of the two films, I was surprised at what a rich counterweight The Fallen Idol proved to be. Reed and Greene here create a childhood fable that is at once happier and more troubling than their immortal postwar classic, a brilliant visual and narrative exercise in the ironic play between innocence and knowledge.
Early on in the film, Reed adopts the child’s Manichean outlook toward butler Baines and housekeeper Mrs. Baines. Both performances at first conform to Phile’s view: an unctuous Ralph Richardson (nominated instead that year for his embittered patriarch in The Heiress) exhibits infinite compassion toward the boy, while the severe Sonia Dresden embodies a Danversian malice. An early scene, in which Baines helps Phile to hide his pet snake from their mutual nemesis, lightly captures the essence of their dynamic. Concealing the snake will occupy more of Phile’s attention than the marital drama he unwittingly sparks and blithely observes from a distance, though the outcome of the former will foreshadow the latter’s monstrous disruption of Phile’s stable universe. Both of the key deaths in the film tellingly remain unseen by the protagonist, underscoring his misperception of the world around him. The second half of the film becomes a pure study in dramatic irony, the audience helpless to watch as Phile’s misapprehensions, together with a trail of lesser lies, conspire to condemn an innocent character. Greene and Reed’s merciful ending merely substitutes a more benign but no less accurate version of events, and one which leaves everyone thinking somebody else a liar.
On its surface, The Fallen Idol possesses a structure that seems suited to the stage, particularly in the claustrophobic setting of the film’s second half. However, in Reed’s hands the story becomes an intensely cinematic exercise in point of view. The very opening moments of the film focus on Phile (played guilelessly by Bobby Henrey, the son of French refugees), gazing down from atop the grand staircase on the bustling household. Phile’s exact view of events becomes essential to the narrative, and Reed’s camera works carefully to contrast the child’s point of view with the objective truth that eludes everyone in the story. Reed has the good fortune of working with Georges Périnal, who shoots the limited main setting as an endless puzzle of ornate furniture and polished surfaces: alternately a playground, maze, and cage for the young protagonist. Keying in on a child’s limited view of the world, Reed and Périnal keep the camera largely at the child’s level: a scene straight out of Brief Encounter plays out from his narrow vantage atop the stairs to the kitchen. At key moments, Reed departs from Phile’s perspective, giving the audience a complete understanding that remains cruelly beyond the characters’ reach. Just before the film’s ending, Reed shows a photographer recording the new evidence before it is summarily destroyed, placing a documentary seal on a false perspective. In the end, lies restore the balance of a corrupt world. The whole truth, which Reed gives only to the audience is irrecoverable. More chillingly, no one believes it was there to begin with.
Impressed as I was with William Wellman’s work on Battleground, I have to concede that Reed has swooped in at the last moment to snatch the prize. Though he would eventually receive the Academy’s top honor for directing many more child performances in 1968’s chipper musical Oliver!, Reed endures in film history for his three consecutive postwar dramas, for which only Odd Man Out failed to yield a nomination. Given that even Reed’s career best work in The Third Man couldn’t wrest my vote from Billy Wilder for Sunset Blvd., I’m happy to choose him in this contest!