There was an article in The Guardian last week asking if privacy was a 20th-century anomaly; with CCTV cameras on every building, it’s easy to miss the days when you could get on with your life without someone stood over your shoulder. The Fallen Idol, rereleased on DVD, Blu-ray and EST by StudioCanal next Monday, is a reminder that privacy can be something darker.
Told from the eyes of young diplomat’s son Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), The Fallen Idol is the story of Baines (Ralph Richardson), a household butler caught between a loveless marriage and a hopeless affair. Neither can last and Baines’ efforts to keep them apart create an ever more complicated web of deception.
Secrets and lies are everywhere in The Fallen Idol – whether in the tall stories Baines tells Phillipe of shooting tigers in Africa, or an incriminating telegram hidden among some flowers – but all are perilously close to the service. They’re like landmines, waiting to go off and take everyone out with them. There’s barely a problem in the film that wouldn’t be resolved if the truth was just put out there, but in the prim-and-proper world of the embassy, respectability must be maintained. It’s a very 19th century worldview and one that, at the time of the film’s release in 1948, was being questioned.
The film is shot in noir-ish style: while Phillipe, Baines and the butler’s young lover (Michèle Morgan) play among the dust sheets of the closed-up house, the set is cut through by the shadows of the window frames. It’s a sharp touch, indicating the presence of an unseen observer: most obviously Mrs Baines (Sonia Dresdel), but also us. In every confrontation between Baines, his wife or his ‘niece’, the camera is an unknown or uncomfortable extra presence.
Of course, The Fallen Idol isn’t aware of every flaw of its time, and Mrs Baines is a regrettable product of the 1940s. She’s a bit of a Mrs Rochester figure – or should that be Norma Desmond? – a vision of crazed, rejected femininity straight out of the nightmares of the male ego. We’re not really sad when terrible things happen to her; we’re just worried because it looks like it might get Baines in trouble. Poor bloke just wanted shot of her, couldn’t the daft bird let it go?
“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” Baines tells Phillippe, and there, as we do everywhere else in the film, we understand more than any one character does. Weakness in this world where doors are meant to remain closed doesn’t mean letting bad things happen to you. It doesn’t even mean letting them get to you. It means admitting them. Privacy is a serious matter – and it’s not always about Theresa May poking through your porn history.
The Fallen Idol is released on DVD, Blu-ray and EST on 16th November.