Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Fallen Idol as antidote to the Cute-Kid Film

Oh, yeah: I have a blog!

Hey there. Good to be back.

A typical, visually-complex scene from The Fallen Idol; our hero, Baines (Ralph Richardson, at the foot of the stairs looking in our direction) nervously awaits the revelation of the contents of the telegram in the police detective's hand--which he already knows will reveal him to have been lying to the detectives about his wife's whereabouts. Yeah--the plot's kinda complicated, too. Image originally found here.

The Fallen Idol (1948; dir. Carol Reed. Starring Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel, Denis O'Dea, Jack Hawkins)

(Disclaimer: some of what follows is inspired by "Through a Child's Eyes, Darkly," Geoffrey O'Brien's essay for The Criterion Collection's edition of the film. As is usually the case, I have my colleague Larry the Movie Guy to thank for lending this to me.)

A quick synopsis right off the bat might be helpful: The film is set mostly in the amazingly-large embassy and residence of a French-speaking ambassador to Great Britain in the years just after WWII and concerns Baines (Richardson), the head servant, who has become emotionally estranged from his wife (Dresdel) and, at the same time, romantically involved with Julie (Morgan), a secretary in the embassy. Mrs. Baines (we never learn her first name, just as we never learn her husband's name) suspicions Baines' interest in another woman (she doesn't yet know it's Julie) and pretends to leave the city to visit a relative; she even sends the above-mentioned telegram to announce her safe arrival there. Instead, she hides in the house in hopes of catching Baines with the other woman. In an attempt to peer into the room where she suspects Julie is hiding, Mrs. Baines climbs onto and slips from a ledge above the house's receiving hall and is killed instantly. Baines is suspected of being directly responsible for her death; it does not help things that he has not been honest about his relationship with either Mrs. Baines or Julie.

I have so far left out of this telling what makes this film so powerful and very much worth your time to seek out. It is the same thing which makes the still "typical": its perspective. In this particular shot, the camera is in the position of the character through whose perspective almost the entire film is shot--and who is responsible for the telegram's reappearance: a young boy named Phillipe (or Phile for short), played by Bobby Henrey, who literally had no prior acting experience before doing this film yet gives one of the best child-actor performances you're ever likely to see. Phile is the ambassador's son; because of his parents' long absences from the residence, he has come to adore Baines but, because he arrives on the scene immediately after Mrs. Baines' fall, suspects Baines of having murdered her, runs away from home, is found by the police and taken back home, and lies to the detectives investigating Mrs. Baines' death in order to try to protect him. We know the truth of the matter, but because we do the dramatic tension arises from not knowing whether Phile's lies (because he is such a bad liar) may actually lead to Baines's arrest and conviction. Though Phile doesn't know the particulars of the accident, he knows other things that, on their own, would be exculpatory if he were simply to tell the truth about them. But the adults in his life have taught him well, through both direct encouragement and example: reticence and the keeping of secrets are a kind of currency in this world, and through including him in these exchanges, Phile gains privileges from adults but also an implicit power over them: Phile most often observes others from above, from inner and outer balconies; still another way in which the image above, being from Phile's perspective on the stairwell, is typical is that it locates Phile as the highest-located person in the scene, suggesting that he, through the knowledge he possesses, is, just now, the most powerful person in the scene.

This sounds like a recipe for Phile's becoming the Child-as-Tormenter, and a lesser film might indeed have headed in that direction. But just as Phile only partly comprehends why the adults are behaving as they do, neither does he entirely understand, much less apply, the power he has over them. He doesn't want anyone to be hurt, especially through his own doing--not even Mrs. Baines, even though he makes it clear that he doesn't like her. But neither is Phile always Cute; instead, as O'Brien writes in his piece, he (and Henrey, who plays him) "is somehow just a kid." What follows is worth quoting at length:

No actor, he has all the genuine awkwardness and inappropriateness of childhood: he talks too loud and at the wrong moment; he inserts himself in places where he shouldn't be; he fails to take hints and winces when he begins to to get a sense of what he has been failing to understand. . . . What saves his performance-that-isn't-a-performance from being as irritating to the audience as it is at times to the characters in the film is . . . [that the] whole cinematic apparatus is enlisted to convey what Phile sees and what spaces he moves through, in the process creating as close an impression of a child's perception as any film has managed. ("Through a Child's Eyes, Darkly" 7)

The Fallen Idol, in other words, is not the usual sort of film featuring a child as its center. Some further words about Cute-Kid films as adult wish-fulfillment are below the fold.

Ever since at least Shirley Temple, movie-goers have been treated, for good or ill, to the spectacle of the "Cute" Kid-as-Protagonist. "Cute," of course, is a relative judgment, hence the quotation marks. But while such films are very common, a quick survey of my memory of the ones I've seen tells me that what is considerably less common are films whose point of view is actually that of the Cute Kid. That is, in the vast majority of Cute Kid films, the Kid charms the adults and us in the audience, but there's the nagging feeling that all we really know about the Cute Kid is that s/he is, well, cute. S/He is thus oddly disengaged from his/her surroundings; if anyone in such films experiences some sort of emotional change or growth, it's the adults: the Cute Kid's cuteness, by contrast, is redemptive for the grown-ups in his/her life: it becomes a weird sort of wisdom as the adults, by the film's end, learn how to play nice with each other by virtue of having been charmed by the Cute Kid.

Well, hogwash. Without going into particulars here, and not that I claim my childhood was in any way typical (though my childhood was far from a tormented one), I can remember many an occasion when, my considerable cuteness notwithstanding, the adults in my life, after having been around me, didn't shape up like they do in the movies--and, I daresay, that's pretty typical of most of your memories of childhood as well, no matter how happy yours may have been. Cute Kid films, some short, honest musing on our childhood reveals, are more about adults' fantasies that maybe kids could save us from our baser tendencies, seeing as grown-ups can't quite seem to manage the job. It's the far rarer film that shows its audience the world of adults from the Cute Kid's perspective: as a world filled with, yes, occasional, happy indulgence of the Kid in combination with half-truths and outright lies told to to the Kid . . . and, indeed, sometimes those indulgences end up serving not the Kid's desires alone but help facilitate the above-mentioned half-truths and outright lies. Meanwhile, once the Cute Kid (and we) reach the end of the narrative, no one is sitting down with the Kid and explaining, "You see, it's like this . . . " Even though we grownups can figure out pretty easily what the adults in the film are up to and why, there still remains the palpable sense of mystery, as though there's still something that escapes our comprehension--and that's because the film's point of view is that of the Cute Kid, who, due to his dim comprehension of what's transpired, can't be the sort of guide through this world that can complete our understanding of it. Such films reveal the uncomfortable truth of childhood that children, heavily dependent on adults for nurturing and protection, must learn to deal with their growing realization that adults are not dependent on them for anything at all--that kids have no choice but to rely on grownups, but adults--yes, even parents--are free to choose (or not) to acquiesce to satisfy that reliance. Kids are lucky--and luckier than they know--when grown-ups make that choice.

Though I'm sure there are others, The Fallen Idol is the only film I know of that is this rarer sort of Cute Kid film. Literature is a bit more honest in this regard, though only relatively so: think in particular of the long tradition in English literature of the emotionally-neglected-children-in-boarding-school genre. American literature is more interested in depicting idealized versions of childhood, though our best-known Cute-Kid novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has plenty of darkness between the glib lines and so is a glorious exception to that tendency. Perhaps the single best example I know, though, is Faulkner's short story, "That Evening Sun," a story told from the point of view of the very young Quentin Compson (of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!) whose tension, by its end, you can cut with a knife--part of that tension resulting from the story's refusal to assure us that someone won't be cut with a knife in the very near future. If you haven't yet, read it. And do try to see The Fallen Idol, too.

Aside: Reed also directed a more typical Cute Kid film, Oliver! (1968), for which he won the Oscar for Best Director and which, having seen The Fallen Idol, I'm now curious to see again.

Carol Reed, by the way, is also the director of The Third Man, one of the very finest films ever made, and whose last scene I wrote about here.

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