Director Carol Reed is maybe best known by mainstream audiences for his Oscar-winning depiction of Dickensian gangs of precocious child thieves in the 1968 musical Oliver!, but two decades earlier he was celebrated for directing the United Kingdom's two foremost examples of film noir, the IRA drama Odd Man Out (1947) and the paranoid post-war thriller The Third Man (1949). In-between those two heavily lauded classics, Reed combined his noir-ish tendencies with his future interest in precocious kids wandering the streets of London with The Fallen Idol (1948).
Ralph Richardson stars as Baines, head butler to London's French embassy, the duties of which include tending the Ambassador's plucky son, Philippe (Bobby Henrey). Phillipe idolizes Baines, and Baines enjoys the attention, regaling the wide-eyed kid with stories from a fabricated past. In reality, however, Baines has personal troubles, and Phillipe stumbles into a sensitive situation for the manservant without really understanding its implications. As the scenario takes a turn for the worse, and a series of lies threatens dire consequences, Phillipe struggles to reconcile his immature understanding of his small world with the complex uncertainties of reality, as well as the ethics of truth-telling and when to shut up.
Reed's The Third Man is considered one of cinema's great films, and one of its major showpieces is a sequence in which Joseph Cotton is chased through the Viennese sewers, which are composed of dramatic pools of shadows and light. There is a scene in The Fallen Idol, produced one year earlier, which looks, in retrospect, like a test run. Phillippe, confused and frightened, runs through the London streets in the dead of night, silhouetted against wet cobblestones, his shadow projected on the walls of old buildings… it's just as marvelous as The Third Man. There are several scenes of this stature in The Fallen Idol — another involving an obliviously tense game of hide and seek inside the Embassy — which strikes a pretty good balance between its noir-ish elements and its unavoidable "kid movie" trappings.
It's great to see Richardson — a venerable British actor who remained a familiar face on the big screen through to his death in 1983 at age 81 — in such a substantial role; he's terrific. But a movie like The Fallen Idol, which is fundamentally about a pre-teen boy and seen through the eyes of a pre-teen boy, really risks everything on the performance of pre-teen boy, and Henrey is also a lot of fun to watch in the first of his only two screen appearances. With his shade of a French accent, and his concerned eyes, and his stubborn vulnerability, he's a real natural and carries the entire movie with seeming ease.
Written by Graham Greene (as would be The Third Man), there are a wealth of peripheral details that make The Fallen Idol more rewarding than simply a tightly plotted suspense story, such as the way adults crowd around Phillipe in expectation, like predators; or the way he professes to not like girls but instantly responds to a sympathetic woman (Dora Bryan, as what might be one of the best single-scene movie characters); or the way the business of the embassy goes on as usual despite serious disruptions.
As was the standard in the 1940s, The Fallen Idol may wrap up a little too neatly, especially given the darkness encroaching on its climax, and delivers its theme with an unnecessarily literalism — even seemingly harmless lies can add up to devastating consequences — but it's a high-quality drama with a winning (and often funny) child performance.