Fallen Idol, The (1948): Carol Reed’s Masterpiece, based on Graham Greene’s Story, Starring Ralph Richardson

Carol Reed’s superb psychological thriller The Fallen Idol is based on the short story “The Basement Room,” by Graham Greene, who also wrote the sharp screenplay.
Grade: A (***** out of *****)


The Fallen Idol

U.S. theatrical release poster

It’s the first collaboration between Greene and Carol Reed, and the second of a trilogy of great films directed by Reed, back-to-back at the peak of his creative faculties. The other two were “Odd Man Out,” which preceded “Fallen Idol,” and “The Third Man,” which followed it.

Told from a child’s subjective POV, “Fallen Idol” is a subtle thriller set in a foreign embassy in London.

The story begins when the ambassador departs for a weekend, leaving his precocious and imaginative son Felipe (Bobby Henrey) with supposedly his reliable butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) and Baines’ wife (Sonia Dresdel).

The boy idolizes the seemingly kindly and considerate Baines, but he dislikes his shrewish and vicious wife, who’s always reproaching him– for one thing or another.

Early on, we find out that Baines and the Embassy’s typist (French actress Michelle Morgan) are having an affair. Felipe hears the couple whispering something to each other, and it later becomes clear that they have agreed to end their relationship.

Baines asks for one more meeting at a nearby coffee shop. To his surprise, Felipe also arrives, and the couple has to pretend as if they are family relatives.

The big secret is later wheedled out of Felipe by Mrs. Baines, who suspects that something is basically wrong.

After a violent argument with her husband, in a jealous rage, Mrs. Baines accidentally falls down a flight of stairs to her death. Felipe hears but doesn’t witness her demise.

At first, the boy believes that Baines killed his wife, and his attempts to cover up for his friend only draw more suspicion to Baines from the police.

Rushing out of the house in the middle of the night, the police stops Felipe, and a routine investigation begins.  The cops, O’Dea and Hawkins, hover ominously around the embassy, trying to trap the butler into a misstep. Still not understanding what he had witnessed, Felipe fears that his idol will be arrested.

Reed skillfully blends elegant camera angles, stylized lighting, and sterling performances from the entire ensemble into an intriguingly suspenseful film that’s effective both as a mystery and as a psychological drama about children’s vulnerability and loss of innocence.

Robert Krasker’s hyper-polished cinematography and Reed’s own gifts for generating tension turn the film into an elegant and complex exercise of genuine suspense both verbally and visually. Georges Perinal was the cameraman in a film that’s considered to be one of the highlights of black-and-white grandeur. The whole movie represents a high point of the British Tradition of Quality, an era that lasted throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Playing a character in its own right, the house comes across alive with intriguing and perilous spaces, and the sharp high angle and low angle shots of the interiors and the immense staircase contribute to a sustained sense of ominous danger.

The tone is straight Greene, a combination of cynicism, mortification, and agony vindicated, but Reed serves it with understanding. In this movie, Greene scripted for a larger audience than his usual readership, and he collaborated on the conveniently happy ending, which differs from the story’s despair about guilt and retribution.

Much more than just a good suspense story, “Fallen Idol” is an insightful study of a child’s awakening to human fallibility and suffering disillusionment. Despite the positive note of the closing scene, when Felipe runs into the arms of his returning family, grave doubts remain as to whether he will ever again trust his parents or any adult figure.

Ralph Richardson takes top honors as the noble yet beleaguered and doomed butler trapped in a hopeless affair, excelling in playing a scheming but ultimately innocent butler. Richardson’s tender treatment of the boy, his cultured bearing, and his gentlemanly demeanor convey supreme nobility that belies his working class origins.

Henrey is wonderful in portraying the jittery and intelligent but lonely child, who has only one friend in the huge embassy. Reed’s work with Henrey established his reputation as a sensitive director of children, which would be further confirmed by the engaging performances he would draw from children in a “Kid for Two Fightings” and the 1968 Oscar-winning musical “Oliver!”

Critical Status:

“Fallen Idol” received the British Best Film Award and Reed was honored as Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle.

The Fallen Idol occupies the 48th position on Time Out magazine’s list of the “100 best British films”, which polled critics and members of the film industry.

One of the finest films about children–the ways they can be manipulated and betrayed, their loyalties misplaced and their emotions toyed with–bears thematic resemblance to Joseph Losey’s 1971’s masterpiece, The Go-Between, which also centers on a boy abused and manipulated by a couple (Julie Christie and Alan Bates) engaged in an illici affair.


Oscar Context:

Nominated for two Oscars, Best Director for Reed and Best Screenplay for Greene, “Fallen Idol” lost in both categories to Joseph Mankiewicz, who won the Oscars as writer and director of “A Letter to Three Wives.”

Reed was knighted in 1952, and finally won the Best Director Oscar in 1968 for a lesser effort, “Oliver!” which also won the Best Picture.


London Films (Selznick Releasing International, UK production)

Produced, directed by Carol Reed
Written by William Templeton, Lesley Storm, Graham Greene, based on “The Basement Room” by Graham Greene
Music by William Alwyn
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Edited by Oswald Hafenrichter

Production company: London Film Productions

Distributed by British Lion Films

Release date: September 30, 1948

Running time: 95 minutes
Box office £215,823 (UK)


Ralph Richardson as Baines
Michèle Morgan as Julie
Sonia Dresdel as Mrs. Baines
Bobby Henrey as Philippe
Denis O’Dea as Chief Inspector Crowe
Jack Hawkins as Detective Ames
Walter Fitzgerald as Dr. Fenton
Dandy Nichols as Mrs. Patterson
Joan Young as Mrs. Barrow
Karel Stepanek as First Secretary
Gerard Heinz as Ambassador
Torin Thatcher as Police Constable
James Hayter as Perry
Geoffrey Keen as Detective Davis
Bernard Lee as Inspector Hart, Special Branch
John Ruddock as Dr. Wilson
Hay Petrie as Clock Winder
Dora Bryan as Rose
George Woodbridge as Sergeant, Chelsea Police Station