The Fallen Idol (1948): Learning to Lie

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A child of eight can’t act. I wasn’t looking for an exhibitionist. Adults have habitual features and defenses. A good actor must take something away, lose a part of himself before he can create a role. 

But with the right sort of child such as Bobby, there is nothing in the way. There is absolutely no resistance. He will do everything you tell him. 

—Sir Carol Reed

 

To call Bobby Henrey a “child actor” would disgrace the uncanny skill and patience of such professional children as Freddie Bartholomew and company.

Bobby starred in only two films: one of them a masterpiece, the other a flop. According to Guy Hamilton, the assistant director of The Fallen Idol, “Bobby had the concentration of a demented flea.” He succumbed easily to boredom and never ceased fidgeting. Co-star Ralph Richardson refused to act with Bobby at a certain point. A padded-up Hamilton often stood in to preserve Richardson’s sanity.

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However, seen by the camera and reassembled by editing, Bobby emerged as something much more extraordinary. He wasn’t acting the part of a child, full of calculated dimples and Victorian postcard sweetness. He was simply, sincerely, and sometimes maddeningly a child.

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Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, scripted by the great Graham Greene, refreshes the tropes of noir by making this child an unwilling participant in a lurid quadrangle of passion and betrayal. Bains, an English butler working at the French embassy in London, falls in love with Julie, a typist working there, and the pair conceal their relationship from Bains’s shrill, vindictive housekeeper wife.

Left in the care of Bains and Mrs. Bains, little Philippe, or ‘Phile’ (pronounced ‘Phil’), the lonely son of the ambassador, gets embroiled in this tangle of lies and conflicting loyalties. When Mrs. Bains accidentally plummets to her death in the midst of a jealous rage, the child witnesses only part of the scene and concludes that Bains, his hero, murdered her.

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Unlike the typical voyeur-witness in film noir, with an obvious duty to tell the truth and shame the devil as in Rear Window or The Window, Phile toddles into a complex empirical and ethical situation. Should he tell the truth and risk incriminating his idol? Or keep on lying—which might put Bains’s head in the noose even more quickly?

The fact that a twitchy, rather selfish child has to navigate this labyrinth of moral quandaries not only heightens the suspense, but also suggests how these kinds of human heart dilemmas bewilder us all—reducing us to little more than children.

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When Phile cries out, “We’ve got to think of lies and tell them all the time!” at a key tense moment of the film, he’s actually articulating the code of the adult world, a protocol of deception, running the gamut from genteel fibs to half-truths to full-on backstabbing.

Like his character Phile, Bobby Henrey also encountered an adult world far too soon. The French-born only child of two writers, he grew up in the bomb-shattered London of World War II. No wonder he had the attention span of a “demented flea,” with bombs going off around him during his formative years!

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 2.12.51 PMBobby’s silky blond hair and bow lips gave him a fragile, angelic appearance. When the boy’s parents featured him on the cover of one of their books, A Village in Piccadilly, the brilliant English director Carol Reed spotted the child and resolved to cast him in The Fallen Idol. Serendipitously, Bobby spoke French as well as English, and the script called for just such a bilingual child.

Even when speaking English, the lispy remnants of a French accent—R’s catching in his throat, S’s and T’s bleeding into each other—made Bobby’s treble voice both more adorable and more annoying. We sense his displacement every time he opens his mouth.

His strange inflections remind us of the difficulty of making oneself clear as a child. Just as all children wrestle with understanding the world around them, even the most verbal child struggles to make himself understood to the world. These little people grasp for words, putting together sentences like small-holed beads not easily strung together. Bobby spoke his lines like that: haltingly, off-key.

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And yet, I marvel at his casual fluency in adult idioms of the “old chap” variety.

When asked whether or not he’d like an ice cream cone, he stodgily replies, “I wouldn’t say no, Bains. “As he pours himself a drink, he mutters, “Hit me,” like a businessman after a long day at work.

We can imagine him echoing his diplomat father when he moans, “Now, will someone listen to me?” as though he were corralling a contentious summit of attachés.

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More important, Bobby’s Phile shines with a need to give love that rescues him from the label of the incorrigible embassy brat. You can feel a lingering and intimate engrossment in close shots of Phile’s hand caressing MacGregor, a glistening garden snake—the boy’s only friend other than Bains. Those images come across as some of the most poignant (and unlikely, given how little boys love to torment creepy-crawlies) representations of childhood affection ever to grace the screen.

Not realizing that snakes can’t recognize themselves, he puts a pocket mirror up to the tiny serpent, whispering, “Hello, MacGregor. Look—you’re very pretty, you know.” I’m sorry, I know of very few eight-year-old boys who profess their love to reptiles. He wants so badly to share his tenderness with something, even the most cold-blooded of critters.

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Bobby’s rendition of Phile thus plays out as one-third little girl, one-third little gentleman, and one-third utter terror. In his unformed innocence, he contains fragments of all of the other characters in the film: Bains’s sedate bravado, Julie’s melancholic kindness, and Mrs. Bain’s self-absorption.

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The Fallen Idol opens with an iteration of its most striking motif. Phile peers through the bannister bars of the ornate townhouse that he calls home, looking down at the people who bustle around on the parquet floor below. In the language of the camera, high angle shots usually suggest superiority, literally looking down on others.

Yet, In a peculiar way, we recognize Phile as both a mini-tyrant—forever showing up at exasperating times, puncturing a tragic romance with impunity—and a victim.

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Throughout the film, Phile’s point-of-view shots often observe the comings-and-goings of the characters from this vantage point, from a high perch.

Staring down at the drama from his roost, he sees things he really shouldn’t, traumatic, twisted adult things that he’s not ready to see. The high angle shots reveal both Phile’s precarious isolation and the odd degree of power that he ends up holding over the fates of the main characters.

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Only towards the end of the film do we see Phile from the vantage point that once was his, after his lies have spun completely out of control and his credibility has totally collapsed.

By lying poorly and slipping himself up, he casts suspicion on his hero whom he now views as a killer. And in so doing, he sheds his status, in his own eyes, as a special sort of child, a privileged charge and a secret-keeper.

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The genius of The Fallen Idol resides in its ability simultaneously to suggest the child’s perspective, to wink at the audience, and, most tantalizingly, to indicate that the Phile can digest much more than you might assume.

For instance, when Bains plots a clandestine excursion with Julie under the pretense of a visit to the zoo, Phile walks right past the door of the room where Bains is talking to her. Then, getting his wind up, he drolly tiptoes backwards. Cut to a point-of-view shot as the camera carefully tracks to eavesdrop as the butler insists, “The boy knows nothing.”

Later, when Bains pretends to be surprised at Julie showing up, Phile corrects him, saying that he was talking to her earlier. This son of a diplomat has not only been taught to lie precociously, he can also catch others in their lies, at times.

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However, we’re not encouraged to view Phile condescendingly. He only has a piece of the puzzle, true, but he’s no more muddled than any of the so-called adults.

His confused perspective parallels the equally anxious positions of the grown-ups. Indeed, the only one who gets the full story is the viewer. For instance, Mrs. Bains dies alone and only we know exactly how it happens.

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Phile watches Bains and Mrs. Bains struggle. Boy, is this kid gonna need therapy!

And so we arrive at the villain of the piece, the monstrous and pitiful Mrs. Bains. We’ve all had to deal with a Mrs. Bains. You know, that sadistic adult in your life who, out of her own bitterness, yelled at you not for doing anything really wrong but merely for being a child, for possessing the innocence and freedom that destiny had deprived her.

Now, Phile may not be the easiest child star to love, but I want to hug him when he turns to that malicious harridan over the dinner table and matter-of-factly tells her, “I hate you.”

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Her nostrils flair: “Master Philip, you’ll say you’re sorry for that.” His head barely poking up over the tablecloth, the tiny boy objects, “I’m not sorry.” As this dangerous exchange takes place, we get a reaction shot of Bains and can discern how impressed he is at Phile telling his wife what he’d probably most like to tell her!

Phile brings about this confrontation of cataclysmically pure honesty. So, of course, he’s sent to his room with no supper. It’s the last fully honest moment in the film.

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For an only or lonely child raised in an ambiance of high-stakes adult games like education or politics, childhood is a state of endlessly being patronized and dismissed.

Believe me. I know.

I grew up as a faculty brat, proud of my encyclopedic knowledge of secrets, of the petty rivalries and schemes that cropped up at the private school where my mother worked.

Take my word on it: long before most children can pronounce the word, they’ve come to hate hypocrisy. And by the time they can pronounce it, they’ve usually been coerced to embrace it.

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Children are the world’s dupes. Not because they lack intelligence, but rather because they possess far more of it than most grown-ups tend to realize. Children live in worlds governed by rules and they know all too well when they—or the adults around them—have broken a rule.

Whereas a child’s faults are often painstakingly reflected back to him and punished, the child who points out the transgressions of his elders faces a terrible and implacable resentment.  People take criticism quite easily from those who can be discounted by their own vices. But reproach from a child stings. The guilty do not like to be rebuked by the guiltless.

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We observe the double-bind that every child faces when Mrs. Bains wakes Phile up to ask him where Bains and Julie can be found in the house. The boy’s cherubic head rests on the pillow. A bobby pin drops next to him on the pillow.

Phile opens one eye. A cut comes quickly—almost too quickly—to jolt us with the frenzied face of Mrs. Bains. “Oh, you know all about them.” She hisses. “You’re not such a child as you pretend to be! You’ve got a nasty wicked mind and it ought to be beaten out of you!”

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The jilted wife treats the child as if he’s an extension of her cheating husband. Phile’s trilling, high voice chokes with horror. He can’t totally process what fuels the adults’ envy and passion, but he knows that he has no place being talked to like this.

He’s been swapped out for a grown man in a lover’s quarrel, feeling the heat of blame for his idol’s infidelity. It scares the hell out of him. Sex is like some algebraic variable that he hasn’t discovered but can discern from the facts, leaving the entire equation lob-sided and all the more alarming.

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The Fallen Idol stands out as one of the most haunting, stomach-churningly tense films I’ve ever seen. In terms of suspense, it schools Hitchcock, whose films rarely (if ever) showcased a performance as vulnerable and exquisite as little Bobby Henrey’s.

Carol Reed, gifted at handling kids as his Oliver! proved, charmed every ounce of that child’s cuteness, his mischief, his ability to bug the living daylights out of his elders.

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Crack cameraman George Perinal, who belongs in the cinematography greats pantheon with Jack Cardiff, captures Bobby’s face so as to wring every emotional nuance out of it. In one scene, when an inspector bends over to talk to the boy, a ray of light drifts over his face, giving him the look of a living painting.

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Most stunningly, as a terrified Phile runs through the noirish streets at night, his miniscule, pajama-clad body flickers through the chiaroscuro, a single point of focus in composition after composition of slick darkness and urban decay.

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I think that I am scarcely exaggerating when I conclude that The Fallen Idol represents the best film ever made about childhood and one of life’s most important rites of passage: learning to lie. And it all would’ve been unthinkable without Bobby Henrey.

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N.B. I am very much indebted to and fully acknowledge an article in the UK Guardian, “What Bobby Saw,” about Bobby’s involvement in the film for certain quotes that I’ve cited in this post and a lot of useful background information.

Although the analysis here is all my own, I would also like to recommend Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay “Through a Child’s Eyes, Darkly” which comes in the Criterion Collection booklet accompanying the DVD of The Fallen Idol, which gave me some great inspiration as I wrote this post.

This post is part of the Children in Film Blogathon hosted by Comet over Hollywood. Join us in celebrating child stars and heck out the other posts! They’re really wonderful.

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8 thoughts on “The Fallen Idol (1948): Learning to Lie

  1. You always write such interesting articles. I love that you don’t always write about the most popular actors. Thank you for your work. I’m so addicted to the classics I wish I could find a way to do something to bring a spotlight more to that era as I almost missed out on it completely. Have a wonderful Memorial Day and thank you again..

    Sent from Brad’s Iphone

  2. “Bobby had the concentration of a demented flea” That’s terrible and hilarious.
    I have never seen this movie but it sounds excellent! I also didn’t know anything about Bobby and loved your analysis.
    Thank you so much for participating and wonderful post!

  3. I’m so pleased you have reviewed this, as I very recently watched it after reading Graham Greene’s great novella – the plot was altered for the film, as in the original story Baines is guilty. However, I think both the story and the film are equally great – Bobby Henrey’s performance is wonderful, and I love the way you follow it through in this posting. Ralph Richardson and Michèle Morgan are both excellent too. Another fine posting!

  4. Great review that had me interested in checking out this film. I love your comparison between Bobby’s initial position above the other characters and subsequent fall. A child learning how to lie and becoming corrupted like the rest of us. Sounds like a very interesting noir indeed.

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