Book And Film: “The Fallen Idol”

Last year the Criterion Collection released the long-awaited DVD of The Fallen Idol, the 1948 film directed by Carol Reed and adapted for the screen in collaboration with Graham Greene from his story, “The Basement Room.” It may be my favorite of all the DVDs released in 2006.

Greene’s original story, available online as well as in a Penguin edition with The Third Man, is a fine work by this master writer, and it is a joy to see a great author turn a very good story into an even better film. There are several significant changes from the original story to the film version, and they are all to the good. One example: there are no animals in this story about the loss – or myth – of innocence, yet for the film the child Philip has a beloved pet snake. No Eden, it seems, can do without one.

The Fallen Idol

It’s worth looking at both the original story and the version that Reed and Greene brought to the screen to appreciate how brilliantly they take the plot to a new level.

“The Basement Room” opens with Philip, his parents away on a holiday, left alone in “the great Belgravia house” with the butler Baines and Mrs. Baines. Initially told from Philip’s point of view, we learn that Baines is his favorite and Mrs. Baines is a shrew to her husband and an unstable tyrant to the boy. Baines regales young Philip with tales from days gone by when he lived in the tropics. Not exactly paradise – as usual, it’s not the heat but the humidity – but at least in those days Baines had forty natives under his command, he tells Philip, and a gun. It all changed when he married Mrs. Baines. Paradise lost.

Mrs. Baines may indeed be an ill-tempered shrew, but seven-year-old Philip certainly can be trying. Defying Mrs. Baines, does not go to his room as told but instead sneaks off to wander around town. Later, Philip happens to peer through the window of a tea shop and sees Baines, not as the beaten-down spouse but invigorated: “This was a happy, bold, and buccaneering Baines, even though it was, when you looked closer, a desperate Baines.” Baines’ elixir is of course “Emmy,” who Philip guesses is Baines’ niece, of whom he has once heard. Baines allows Philip to hold on to that notion, though he suggests the encounter remain between them. “Baines said, ‘I don’t ask you to say what isn’t true. But you needn’t actually tell Mrs. Baines you met us here.’”

As usual with these stories, it all ends in tears: Mrs. Baines guesses what’s going on and Philip unwittingly gives her confirmation without Baines learning the jig is up. Mrs. Baines fakes a visit away from home, and catches Baines and Emmy in the house. A struggle ensues. “Age and dust and nothing to hope for were her handicaps. She went over the banisters in a flurry of black clothes and fell into the hall; she lay before the front door like a sack of coals which should have gone down the area into the basement. Philip saw; Emmy saw; she sat down suddenly in the doorway of the best spare bedroom with her eyes open as if she were too tired to stand any longer. Baines went slowly down into the hall.”

It’s a well-told tale with an allegory about innocence lost or betrayed – or never-was – itching to be teased out.

If I’ve given away the story – the real joy is actually in Greene’s telling – it’s only to establish how brilliantly Reed and Greene take it to another level in the film version of the tale.

First, there’s the aforementioned snake, Philip’s beloved pet which appears nowhere in the original tale. It’s a nice little touch, a forbidden secret – shared by Baines, but one which Mrs. Baines thought she had brought an end to – and it hints at an element of the wild that insinuates itself even in the pristine mansion in Belgravia. Phil’s caresses of the snake also play on a Freudian motif that the film pursues in a number of incidental ways. For example, in the film, Phil’s parents are not away on holiday; instead his emotionally distant father has gone off to retrieve his mother, who Phil doesn’t know very well, who has been away for unspecified health reasons.

Also, Baines’ gun is only mentioned in the story, and we never know if it is as fictitious as the harmless adventures with which he entertains Philip or if it really did exist. In the film, we see the gun in an early scene and its mere presence in the house will ratchet up the suspense later when the tension is already high.

Likewise, early in the film Baines suggests there are lies and then there are lies. Mrs. Baines asks what he means by that and he replies, “Some lies are just kindness.” At the time we are allowed to believe that the banality may refer to the stories he tells the child, or to the decency with which he treats his undeserving wife. But Philip is unlearning the child’s certainty about the goodness of truth and the badness of lies, and he internalizes this notion that some lies are salutary.

The consequences, unforeseen but perfectly plausible, are spectacularly sprung on us when he later thinks lying will serve the cause of goodness. To be any clearer about that would spoil the film, but I will simply add that there is an extra twist to this parable about truth and lies and good and evil that makes for a thrilling sequence.

Finally, whereas in the story Philip and Emmy are witnesses to the “accident” that sends Mrs. Baines over the banisters, they are not present for her death in the film. I’ll give away no more than that, but there’s some terrific filmmaking in playing out the plot.

The Fallen Idol is beautifully shot, and there is great economy in the way the story unfolds. Reed and Greene of course collaborated on The Third Man, and they both later claimed The Fallen Idol was the superior film. That’s probably a minority opinion, but I’m inclined to agree. Maybe you will, too.