- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

Accomplished filmmakers once found it gratifying to formulate suspense stories in ways that made it possible for little things to mean a lot. One of the best examples in British film history, “The Fallen Idol,” is in revival at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

Two of its breathtaking images involve the fall of seemingly harmless objects:a hairpin onto a pillow and a paper airplane from the top of a flight of stairs.Context gives these descents a sinister ripple:The hairpin belongs to a desperate and vindictive woman; the paper airplane barely conceals a potentially incriminating telegram and lands at the feet of a policeman investigating a suspicious death.Not so coincidentally, the victim came to rest at approximately the same spot.

Released in 1948, “The Fallen Idol” began a distinctive and memorable partnership between writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed.Their association continued a year or so later with “The Third Man” and concluded in the late 1950s with “Our Man in Havana.” The most compact and least exotic picture in the set, “Idol” derived from a Greene short story of 1936, “The Basement Room.’ It was updated to London and given a more distinguished address for the original dwelling, the living quarters of an unhappily married butler and housekeeper.

The cinematic mismates, Mr. and Mrs. Baines, portrayed by Ralph Richardson and Sonia Dresdel, have been relocated to a foreign embassy in Belgrave Square. The violent unraveling of their marriage becomes a traumatic spectacle for the curious but perplexed little boy, Felipe (Bobby Henrey), who has been left in their care.Known as Phil or Master Philip to the gentle, melancholy Baines, whom he idolizes, the boy is the son of a French-speaking ambassador, away for the weekend to retrieve his wife from a hospital stay.

The embassy building is depopulated to facilitate ominous and calamitous events.We watch most of the staff depart on a Saturday, clearing out a posh and spacious setting for three people on a collision course, plus the inquisitive child who becomes an alarmed and uncomprehending eyewitness to their conflicts.The third grown-up anticipates the disappearing act of Mr. Greene’s “third man”: This is an embassy typist named Julie, involved in a clandestine romance with Baines and planning to return home to France, persuaded that there’s no future in the affair.

Michele Morgan was recruited for the role, giving it a glamorous dimension that may defy credibility in a strict sense.It’s a bit difficult to envision Miss Morgan as an obscure member of the typing pool — or plausible consolation for Baines.On the other hand, she does seem well qualified to inflame the shrewish and embittered Mrs. Baines, lurking in the shadows as she takes measures to entrap and confront the lovers, who believe they’re alone in the residence with only Phil to worry them.

A similar setting in a modern thriller probably would suggest two possibilities: a terrorist break-in, accompanied by multiple killings with automatic weapons, or a terrorist bombing, calculated to obliterate a luxurious residence (and its hostages) with optimum pyrotechnical impact. So it may come as an aesthetic relief to be reminded of the effectiveness of a small-scale and intimate methodology.

An unloaded gun is revealed at an early point in “The Fallen Idol,” but it remains unused.The eventual “murder weapon” is a tilted window frame — something of an inside joke because Mr. Reed became a virtuoso with tilted imagery.He also was an atmospheric whiz with scenes of damp and ominously gleaming night streets, a specialty echoed in both “Idol” and “The Third Man.”

The estrangement of Baines and his wife transforms the embassy into a haunted house and deathtrap, but the calamity remains very personal. It hinges on failures of character and psychology in ordinary people and accentuates the fault lines between adult conflicts and a child’s misapprehension of those conflicts.Secrets and lies loom so large in the scheme of things that it’s a little surprising in retrospect that no one isolated “Secrets and Lies” as a desirable title.

TITLE: “The Fallen Idol”

RATING:No MPAA rating. (Made in 1948, decades before the advent of a rating system; adult subject matter, with occasional ominous episodes and allusions to infidelity)

CREDITS:Directed by Carol Reed. Screenplay by Graham Greene, based on his short story “The Basement Room.” Additional dialogue by Lesley Storm and William Templeton. Cinematography by Georges Perinal.Production design by Vincent Korda and James Sawyer.Film editing by Oswald Hafenrichter.Music by William Alwyn

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

WEB SITE:www.rialto pictures .com

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