A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1948)

The presidential campaign has put lying at the center of conversation this year, so The Fallen Idol fits right in: It's all about lying and its consequences. The film is usually categorized as a thriller, and it's undeniably suspenseful, but if you try to pigeonhole it as a thriller you have to deal with an ending that doesn't have the punch that we expect from the genre. I prefer to think of it as something less sexy, and probably much less enticing to those who haven't seen it: a moral fable. Revising his story "The Basement Room" into a screenplay, Graham Greene ensnares everyone in the film in their own lies, so that the audience, which knows the truth, is kept in suspense. Philippe (Bobby Henrey) is the young son of an ambassador, living in the embassy in London's Belgrave Square. His mother has been recuperating from a long illness in their home country, and when his father goes to see her, Philippe is left in the care of the butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), and his wife, the housekeeper (Sonia Dresdel). Philippe idolizes Baines, who entertains him with made-up stories about his adventures in Africa -- in fact, he has never been out of England. Mrs. Baines, on the other hand, is strict and fussy, so he has learned to be sneaky about things like the pet snake he is hiding from her. When Mrs. Baines punishes him one day by sending him to his room, Philippe sneaks down the fire escape and follows Baines to a cafe, where Baines is meeting with Julie (Michèle Morgan), a woman who used to work at the embassy. Baines and Julie are in love, but she has found their relationship hopeless and has decided to break it off. When Philippe surprises them, Baines pretends that Julie is his niece; before the boy, they continue to talk about their relationship as if it were that of some other couple. After Julie leaves, Baines persuades Philippe not to talk about her around Mrs. Baines, telling him that she dislikes Julie. Back at the embassy, Baines tries to persuade his wife that their marriage is at an end, but she is having none of it. Learning that he's seeing another woman, she also lies, telling him that she's going away for a few days, then secretly stays behind to spy on him. All of this deception comes to a head with an accidental death that looks a lot like murder, with Philippe as a key witness. But Philippe has been so confused by the lies he's been told and the ones he's been asked to tell, that when the police question him he is in danger of leading them into a serious error of justice. Director Carol Reed brilliantly manages to hold most of the film to Philippe's point of view, giving the audience the double vision of what is actually happening and what Philippe thinks is happening. Nine-year-old Henrey, who had no significant film career afterward, is splendidly natural in the role, and Richardson brings a necessary ambiguity to the part of Baines. The film is also enlivened by Greene's secondary characters, including a chorus of housemaids who comment on the action, a clock-winder (Hay Petrie) who breaks the tension of an interrogation scene, and a scene at the police station where the cops and a prostitute (Dora Bryan) try to figure out what to do with Philippe, who has run away after the accident, barefoot and in pajamas, and refuses to tell them where he lives.