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REVIEW — The Fallen Idol (1948)

November 17, 2015

This week, circumstances have allowed me to offer you something of a cultural dyad. For years now, British film critics have fetishised British film to the point where the term has become almost meaningless. For some, it means simply British accents and British names on the credits of Hollywood Blockbusters. For others, it means a truly national cinema that speaks to the concerns of the British people in terms that are uniquely theirs. As someone who has grown increasingly pessimistic about the Hollywood machine’s capacity to generate decent films, I favour the latter solution but even I wonder what a mature and deep-rooted British cinema might look like. Would it be Hollywood-lite in the same way as BBC dramas have come to feel like childish and over-eager attempts to appeal to American audiences? Or would it be something much darker and unpleasant? An expression of the fascistic desires and xenophobic tendencies that coarse through the British political bloodstream?

French cinema might be a good form to emulate but French cinema has very noticeably struggled with the urge to be Hollywood-lite and the urge to continue producing respectable grown-up films about middle-class people experiencing some sort of crisis. Don’t get me wrong… I love French populist cinema almost as much as I love films about middle-class French people experiencing crises but I also realise that neither of these models represents the realities of modern France. Another alternative would be to look back to a time when Britain actually had a film industry that was both mature and authentic, which is where this week’s offerings come in.

This week’s first review demonstrates quite how sophisticated post-War British cinema could be. As my review for FilmJuice argues, Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is an attempt to engage with how children see the world and how their vision of the world is liable to be distorted by grown-ups with vested interests in particular truths. Set amidst the marble palaces of Knightsbridge, the film is about a diplomat’s son who has been left alone with his father’s butler and house-keeper:

At first, Reed forces us to see this reluctant family unit through the eyes of the child meaning that Mrs. Baines comes across as an evil step-mother while Mr. Baines seems like an ideal father. However, as the film progresses and we are allowed to learn a little more about the secondary characters, it becomes clear that the couple’s behaviour towards the child is being driven in part by grown-up problems that Philippe is not equipped to understand. In reality, Mrs. Baines is not so much an ogre as a desperately unhappy woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who cannot stop lying.

As the narrative unfolds, Philippe’s attempts to protect the interests of his surrogate father are undermined by his own failure to understand either the adult world or what it is that he is actually seeing. The tension between what Philippe believes, what he wants others to believe and what is actually true blossoms into full-grown horror when Philippe mistakenly comes to believe that Mr. Baines has murdered his wife. Interrogated by the police and still desperate to defend his hero, the little boy spins lie after lie and winds up making things a lot worse than they ever needed to be.

 

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The Fallen Idol took me completely be surprise as it seems to be engaged in a very similar exercise to that pursued by Charles Laughton in his classic The Night of The Hunter. However, while Laughton re-constructed the children’s vision of ‘reality’ as filtered through fairy tales, Reed allows the various interpretations of reality to co-exist and sit atop a ‘reality’ that is accessible to the audience but not the characters. This idea of conflicting ‘realities’ battling for dominance is also picked up in the form of characters speaking either figuratively or literally in different languages meaning that even relatively coherent conversations can be engines of disagreement and confusion. The Fallen Idol is a film in which people are forever talking despite being unable to understand each other.

 

 

7 Comments
  1. November 17, 2015 3:50 pm

    I’m not familiar with this film, so I can’t comment it, but the larger question of what constitutes a “British cinema” certainly interested me–that extent to which film industries the world over have been going “Hollywood-lite,” which does not seem to be at all limited to these two countries. Over at Anime News Network, there was a recent column about Japan’s film industry going a similar route over the last decade (and there seem grounds for wondering about a good many other countries as well).

    In any event, looking forward to the next review.

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  2. November 17, 2015 5:52 pm

    Hi Nader :-)

    Yes! I read that column too!

    http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/answerman/2015-10-28/.94702

    I attended a British Film Institute event a few years back featuring critics from Japan and Britain talking through an (overworked) translator. The collective opinion was that the Japanese film industry was creatively bankrupt and reliant upon a) Studio Ghibli and b) rehashes (reboots, re-imaginings, regurgitation of old tropes, and adaptations of stuff from more popular mediums) to make money.

    Populism can be a problem when it drowns out more thoughtful voices, but the problem with the Japanese film industry seems to be that even the more thoughtful voices are struggling to find things to say. For example, I have a lot of respect for people like Hirokazu Koreeda but much of his reputation is based upon his ability to make films that could have been made 60 years ago by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu. It’s one thing when the popcorn movies suck but quite another when your most respected and critically acclaimed directors seem to have ground to a creative halt.

    It’s telling that one of the oldest and most respected websites devoted to Japanese film recently shut itself down in disgust:

    http://www.midnighteye.com/features/reflections-in-a-midnight-eye/

    I think the problems facing the Japanese film industry are almost universal. People are going to film school in record numbers and people are falling over themselves to get into the director’s chair but there seems to be a structural problem preventing those people from turning into cinematic visionaries.

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  3. November 17, 2015 6:43 pm

    Had never heard of this film. Will add it to my list!

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  4. November 17, 2015 7:43 pm

    I definitely recommend it SC!

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  5. November 17, 2015 8:36 pm

    I hadn’t known about Midnight Eye.
    It’s as interesting as it is depressing–all the more so as even the smaller aspects of the situation (not just the financing problems, but that issue of having a hard time finding things to say) seems to be the case the world over.
    In any event, I’ll also be adding Fallen Idol to my ever-increasing list of classics to catch.

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  6. November 26, 2015 8:20 am

    To answer your opening questions: you’re certainly looking at the right era, I’d say. What strikes me about the British cinema of the 1940s in particular is how strong a vision it presents of a distinct national character—in themes, in manner, in the strata of society we see interact—within more or less the same formal space cultivated by the classical Hollywood. I’m thinking of films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or It Always Rains on Sunday, domestically regarded as classics (and rightly so, I think) but outright ignored or unheard of in the standard American narrative of cinema’s golden age, despite being exemplars of the dominant forms of the day: the novelistic historical pageant, the noir. (Blimp in particular was flatly unseen west of the Atlantic except in a severely reduced cut for television until just a few years ago, as I think Scorsese has written about, if memory serves.)

    These are films worth more than veneration by British critics for being British: they are marriages of cinematic forms to domestically incisive subject matter for which they are a peculiarly good fit, be it class stratification or the romance of fair play. They had bite. And it’s true that it’s unclear what the successors to them are in the modern climate of top-heavy homogenization where even independent cinema worldwide bends towards the gravity well of what Hollywood imagines prestigious international pictures to be like. (But that’s what I read you to find out.)

    Now, all that pessimism aside, my observation is that British cinema has always been very well served by the close ties of its performance traditions to the London stage. The actors really come from acting, and the difference from the planned-from-adolescence celebrity packaging in the Los Angeles area is palpable and profound. That doesn’t speak to your concerns about recovering a vision of a mature national cinema, but it might account for why the mere presence of British names on the credits seems to carry the conversation when theatrical erudition is indeed exported as a prominent comparative advantage.

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  7. November 26, 2015 5:21 pm

    I would definitely agree that British film has always been well-served by connections to the theatre. Films like It Always Rains on Sunday come out of a form of leftist social realism that was created and perfected by post-War British theatre.

    The problem with this is that London theatres are really longer in a position to serve as creative engines: Town halls have been privatised and theatres have either been converted into flats or forced to follow the market upwards meaning that a lot of London’s creative spaces are dominated by musicals and the historical canon. I loved going to see old revenger tragedies when I lived in London but that’s not exactly going to raise a new generation of radical play-writes. Conversely, actors continue to do well out of this association: Get into a good drama school, move on to the RSC and before you know it, Hollywood beckons.

    It’s funny that you mention the question of whether or not British films are seen abroad as I recently listened to a podcast featuring someone who had pissed all over French culture from a great height on the (absurd) grounds that government funding and protectionism had encouraged the creation of art that speaks only to French people. I see that as a plus… not a minus.

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