It should come as no surprise that Sriram Raghavan named The Fallen Idol, Sir Carol Reed’s masterful thriller, one of his favourite films of all time. The influence of this classic mystery, written by the one and only Graham Greene (reworking his own brilliant short story The Basement Room), is felt unmistakably in Andhadhun, itself a modern crime classic. When the presumably “blind” pianist Aakash visits a police station to report what seemed like a murder, one is reminded of that older and more ironic film in which a child, at first an innocent and then complicit witness to incidents that lead to an accidental death, sprints away in panic in the lonely London night only to find himself in a grubby police station already alerted of the fateful event.
To call The Fallen Idol one of the finest thrillers of all time is, of course, fully justified. It’s high time however since we also looked beyond its surface of an accidental crime concealing more inconvenient truths, to its nuanced and even poignant story, Greene’s real moral for his readers and his spectators is that children can be tied and bound to the inexplicable tangle of love, lies and deceit woven by the very adults who are supposed to protect and guard them from danger and uncertainty.
Phillipe, a young boy, is left alone on the weekend in his large and formidable Belgravia house in the care of trusted butler Baines and his domineering wife. Phillipe dotes on the aging butler who regales him with stories of his violent adventures in Africa but the boy dislikes and distrusts the overbearing Mrs. Baines, a stern maternal figure who always commands him to stay indoors. Dispirited and bored by his solitude, Phillipe saunters out in the afternoon, only to discover the first of the many damning secrets about his idol, himself poised to fall in grace with his lies and deceptions.
The film becomes unbearable suspenseful as Phillipe is then entrusted with more secrets than he can handle and with assured style and flair, Reed and Greene, also responsible for the untouchable The Third Man, slowly and skilfully keep the pot boiling before it spills in the upsurge of the cathartic night. What follows is an equally tense and desperate investigation as all hope eventually runs out for Baines, even as his disillusioned yet devoted disciple tries, in vain, to save his hero from his fate.
Dazzlingly photographed by Georges Perinal, who also worked with Michael Powell and Charles Chaplin, The Fallen Idol is an elegantly crafted film with the writer and director again demonstrating a finesse in visual disorientation and suspense in an eerie and frantic game of hide-and-seek in the shadows and twilight of the Belgravia house. Even Phillipe’s nocturnal flight throughout the desolate city streets has a feverish, nightmarish effect, an absorbing, anarchic scene of a cloistered child’s discovery of the grimy darkness of the world outside his playroom. Sir Ralph Richardson is moving and melancholic in his portrayal of Baines, Bobby Henrey plays Phillipe with a natural, unaffected air and Sonia Dresdel, as the steely but suspicious Mrs. Baines, conveys the unsettling pathos of her believably paradoxical character, as described by Greene, being “a woman who was sour who liked making sweet things.”
But it is the central theme of the story, also skillfully adapted into the film, that deserves praise too, even as the latter concludes with an ingeniously conceived twist of fortune that is remarkably more hopeful than the bitterly dark denouement of the original. Phillipe’s tryst with the complicated and even unsavoury truths of love and disloyalty is portrayed by Greene’s visceral skill and with a touch of Dickensian drama and suspense. In the end, even as the mystery is solved by the discovery of an unforeseen clue, Phillipe has come of age and has learnt his lesson. He will now have to stay as away as possible from the mysterious and even dangerous world of adults, their lies and secrets.