Monday, November 26, 2007

The Fallen Idol

Because of the dominance of auteur-based film histories the collaborative nature of cinema is sometimes overlooked. It becomes specially apparent when one follows the career of British director Carol Reed. After making a trio of brilliant films in the late forties with producer Alexander Korda, writer Graham Greene with contributions from cinematographer Robert Krasker, culminating in the uber-classic and a huge personal favourite The Third Man, his career faltered. He did make Oliver! which won a few Oscars but as compared to these earlier films it hasn't aged well. I recently saw The Fallen Idol which is perhaps not in the same league as The Third Man but that is only because its canvas is much too small and not because of anything lacking on the part of writer-director.

It is based on a short story by Graham Greene called The Basement Room. In his preface to the story Greene says that unlike The Third Man it was not written for film and that's one of the many reasons why he himself prefers it. The basic story is the same. An eight year old kid named Philip, son of the French ambassador in England, is in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Baines who work as the butler and housekeeper at the embassy, which also doubles as the ambassador residence. Philip is very friendly with the butler Baines who entertains and fascinates him with his exploits in Africa and in general humours all his wishes (like having a pet snake for a friend.) Mrs. Baines however is a strict disciplinarian and as a result is hated by Philip. The fact that she doesn't quite like his friend MacGregor (that's the name of the snake) makes things even worse. Soon we learn of an extra marital affair, marital discord and an accidental death (or murder?) all seen through the eyes of Philip who tries to understand what is happening in his own way. The book ends with Philip unwittingly betraying his friend to the police while the film has an extended final act which Greene says was added entirely by Reed in accordance with his own wishes. Of course it succeeds brilliantly. It is brilliantly shot and edited sequence with lots of glances, witty dialogues and evocative scene compositions.

Like The Third Man this film is full of low angle shots too but unlike in that film here it is used not to capture a feeling of disorientation and menace but rather to show everything from the point of view of the kid. The kid is in every frame of the film and we see everything through his eyes. The main interest of the film lies in the contrast between what is really happening and how it is being interpreted by the Philip. The film succeeds because it manages to capture this contrast so well. The kid who is played by an English kid who was raised in France (he breaks into a fluent French at a few places in the film) is totally unpredictable. In most of the scenes it feels like he is just having some fun on the set, not really interested in any self-conscious "acting." It is again to Reed's mastery that he uses the naturalness of the boy and weaves it into his story so well.

Graham Greene's story is worth reading too though unlike him I prefer his Third Man more (more on that later). He is particularly generous in his praise for Reed in the preface. About the two films he says:

Of one thing about both these films I have complete certainty, that their success is due to Carol Reed, the only director I know with that particular warmth of human sympathy, the extraordinary feeling for the right face for the right part, the exactitude of cutting, and not least important the power of sympathizing with an author's worries and an ability to guide him.

Some quotes from reviews and a fine poster of the film here. A review by Jim Hoberman and another article on the criterion site.


Cheshire Cat said...

I don't think the canvas being too small is a drawback. In fact, constraints compel the exercise of ingenuity; hence the appeal of Dogme, for instance... I loved this movie, and actually prefer it to The Third Man.

Alok said...

it wasn't really a complaint against it. Just that the two films are different in scope and comparing the two may not be such a good idea even though they are similar in style.