CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
I’m certainly pleased that we have a splendid new restored version of Carol Reed’s “The Fallen Idol,” although, in truth, it has always been my least favorite of Reed’s “Big Three” contributions to film noir. It’s probably just too English for me to appreciate it.
I think my real problem is with the character of Mrs. Baines–a gilt-edged bully, and a self-righteous one to boot. My American response to the Baines dilemma is: just get a divorce! Now I realize that in 1948 divorces weren’t the instant cure-all that they have since become. And yes, since Baines is in the employ of a foreign embassy, a divorce from his Missus might well cost him his position. Then too, there is Baines’ guilty claim that he is the one who made Mrs. Baines the way she is by his being the way that he is.
So what exactly is Baines like? In a word, he a “softie” who wants to be liked and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, even as he’s conducting an affair behind his wife’s back. He could use a bit of the cold-blooded logic of Earl Pfeiffer in “Clash By Night” who recognizes that in any extra-marital affair someone’s throat is going to be cut. By trying to break things easy, he only makes them worse.
Then there is Philippe, the ambassador’s young son who Baines entertains with tales of his derring-do in Darkest Africa. Only Baines has never set foot outside of England, and the boy takes every word he says as gospel. When Mrs. Baines slips and falls during one of her out-of-control rages, the boy, not realizing that his idol is a coward who wouldn’t swat a fly, is all too ready to ready to believe that Baines has slain the ogress who was the “bane” of their existences. His attempts to shield Baines backfire badly making the man look guilty as hell in the eyes of the law–chiefly represented here by Dennis O’Dea who played a similar role as the merciless Black-and-Tan officer in Reed’s “Odd Man Out.”
But in the end, I suppose one is left to wonder what exactly is Baines’ sin? This being a film based on a story and subsequent screenplay by Grahame Greene, talk of “sin” isn’t totally uncalled-for. Baines’ sin is that he doesn’t like scenes. He doesn’t want to confront the formidable Mrs. Baines, who is prone to murderous rages, because he hasn’t the heart to strike her and he lacks the nerve to run away from her. So he tries having it both ways in the belief that he can fix it so that no one gets hurt. But someone’s throat has got to be cut. In the end Mrs. Baines does him the favor of cutting her own, but before that is proven to O’Dea’s satisfaction, Baines has indeed become a fallen idol to young Philippe–never shot that native in Africa, never pushed Mrs. Baines down the embassy’s grand staircase.