The shrew of a wife in this film says, “You know what happens to little boys who tell lies.” Yes, we know. They get all kinds of awards for creating great movies like this one. One of the most creative teams of all cinema came together to make this gem: Carol Reed as producer-director, Graham Greene as screenwriter, and Alexander Korda as the studio boss with sense enough to let creatives be creative. They made a film about lies and truth and how we humans stumble along without “the” truth. “There are all kinds of lies,” says the hero-victim of this film which sharply demonstrates that truth.
One astonishing thing about this film is the way we see almost everything through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy. The opening shot shows Phillippe (Bobby Henrey) looking through the railing bars at the bustling scene below in a very grand home. It is the embassy in London of some unnamed francophone country. (An embassy was the only place you would find this kind of luxury in London in 1948, a city still worn out from World War II.) The ambassador, the boy’s father, is leaving for his home country to bring back the boy’s mother who has been in a hospital there for eight months. The butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) has become a surrogate father to the boy, whom he calls “Phil.” (The boy’s real name is Phile.) He indulges the boy and tells him stories of his macho adventures in Africa (where Baines has never actually been). Bitchy Mrs. Baines bosses both Baines and the boy around.
We later learn that Baines is carrying on a pre-sex love affair with Julie (Michèle Morgan), a secretary in the embassy. Baines escapes the house and meets Julie in a tea shop for a desperate talk. She plans to leave London because their love is “impossible.” The boy also gets loose, finds them, and concludes that Julie is Baines’ niece. But the boy inadvertently tells Mrs. Baines that Baines had met someone. Mrs. Baines, suspicious, pretends she will leave town for a few days.
The next day Baines takes boy to the zoo. There’s another Julie liaison and Baines gets her to agree to come to the house when the cat is away. She does, and she and Baines and the boy have a grand time playing hide-and-seek and having a picnic dinner. But Mrs. Baines was lying; we have been catching glimpses of her hidden in the house all through these shenanigans.
She confronts Baines and attacks the boy, leading Baines to struggle with her. She tries to burst in on the lovers, but in doing so falls from a ledge in this very vertical building. She dies, and the boy, terrified, runs through the dark, wet, nighttime streets (that cinematographers love for their gloss and sparkle—this is where the cinematographer Georges Périnal can show his stuff). The boy ends his run in a police station just as Baines telephones the station about Mrs. Baines’ death. The boy believes that Baines killed Mrs. Baines, and he tries to save him by lying about the presence of Julie. But his lies and Baines’s lies to keep Julie “out of it” dig Baines in deeper and deeper.
Obviously, one basic theme for the movie is loyalty and loyalty in conflict with truth. The theme of lying (and keeping secrets) is raised early by Mrs. B, by Baines’ boasting and his deceptions around Julie, and the very idea of diplomacy (a profession based on secrets and lies or at least spin). The other basic theme is loyalty, Baines’ trying to keep Julie “out of it”; the boy’s trying to save Baines. The idea is that “some lies are just kindness,” as Baines says. Critics have read the movie that way, justifiably. But I think there’s more to it than that.
In London in 1948, there was a certain vogue for things psychoanalytic. (For a famous example, see Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet .) Where better to use that knowledge or pseudo-knowledge than in a movie told from the point of view of a child. Here, the boy’s watching Baines and his wife struggle, and she die makes a classic primal scene (a child witnessing sex or violence). The boy responds with predictable terror and rushes through dark, frightening streets until he is picked up by a constable. Meanwhile, the real sex is hidden away, repressed, in a guest bedroom “for very important people,” says Phil).
The oedipal theme is loud and clear. Phil’s father has disappeared into whatever francophone country this embassy belongs to. The father is grand, surrounded by scurrying minions, getting into a posh car, carelessly admonishing Phillipe to “take care of the embassy.” Phil’s mother is absent. Nasty Mrs. Baines substitutes for her, but she is a wicked stepmother. She constantly threatens to tell his real mother and father of his misbehaviors, turning them into a menace.
The butler Baines has become a substitute father, an ideal, with endless patience to indulge Phil with walks and trips to the zoo and lies about exploits in Africa. “There are all kinds of lies.” The stories create a manly aura around Baines and promise a manliness someday for little Phil, bullied by the bitch-mother Mrs. Baines.
The boy longs for a feminine that would be loving, and when he arrives at the police station, he won’t talk to the men, but he snuggles up to Rose, a kindly prostitute waiting to be booked.
But women deceive. Julie pretends to be Baines’s niece and Mrs. Baines tells lie after lie to Phil, leading to her final crazed frenzy when she tries to confront the lovers. Rose, the tart in the police station, offers the deceptive invitation of the prostitute, “Now, you would like to come home with me, wouldn’t you, dearie?” Finally Mrs. Baines lies to the terrified boy about her intentions when she finds Baines and Julie, promising him a big Meccano set (that’s the Erector set of my boyhood). At the end, though, the women are right. Julie urges Phil to tell the truth (but the men, the police, don’t believe him). The feminine joyously returns when mom and dad make a triumphant entrance.
The police (trying to be fatherly to the boy) only elicit lies from him, and Baines seems to be guilty of murdering his wife. He very nearly commits suicide, but Julie saves him when a misunderstood clue frees him, and he and Julie can carry on their love affair. In the last moments of the film, the police refuse to believe Phil, whom they now believe is an habitual liar, although at that moment he tries to tell them the truth (which would damn Baines). In the last shots the ambassador returns with mom, and she stretches out her arms to embrace Phil.
Reed and Greene have provided a happy, happy ending, quite different from Greene’s story (“The Basement Room”) on which the film is based. Mom comes home, arms outstretched to embrace a boy still puzzled by his encounter with lies and truth and secrets. But the film as a whole shows women, the feminine, as defective: mom is sick and absent; Rose is a prostitute; Mrs. Baines is a shrew who goes mad and murderous. Even nice Julie is something of a nonentity who wants to leave rather than fight to make the relationship succeed. In the regrettable manner of Freud himself, the film celebrates masculinity and the father-son relation and denigrates femininity.
Phil’s pet snake, “MacGregor,” is he a phallic symbol for this boy longing for masculinity when his father is absent? And the other animals in the picture, the snarling lion and the cobra that is beautiful but strikes at the boy, the parrot whose long dangling tail he strokes—are they all aspects of that longed-for but fearful manhood? Perhaps. Certainly Baines’s stories of his killing lions and “blackies” in Africa offer Phil a grandiose virility vicariously (and, to the boy’s later distress, falsely). And MacGregor, small, tamed, unthreatening—does he represent a manhood the boy can manage? Appropriately, the witch-mother Mrs. Baines destroys it. Castration?
I think the film is “Freudian” in the rather crude manner of 1948, but I think other readings are possible—and preferable. The thing that struck me most was the film’s verticality. It begins with the “fallen” of the title. The crux of the plot is a fatal fall. And the film is premised on upstairs-downstairs, master and servant.
Reed’s brilliant cinematographer, Georges Périnal, filmed the movie dramatically, very high-contrasty. Much of that drama also comes from verticality Because Reed and Périnal tell the story almost entirely through Phil’s eyes, a lot of the verticality comes simply because adults are taller than this child, and one has to shoot up at the adult faces. And the embassy building is tall. It has a four-story fire escape on which the boy can get free. There is a high balcony where he looks down at the street. The house has upper floors overlooking the central lobby with grand staircases between them. The opening shot shows the boy looking through the bars of one of these staircases down at his father’s departure. The final shot is of one of those grand staircases and its railing (with Phil’s misleading fingerprint on it). Looking through bars creates a fragmentary view, and the boy’s view of events, Julie’s meeting with Baines or the fall of Mrs. Baines, is indeed a fraction of the truth.
We see the events of the film from the point of view of this eight-year-old boy. He is acted superbly by bilingual Bobby Henrey, although he drove Reed crazy with his short attention span and basic inability to act. Finally Reed brought in a magician to do tricks and elicit the appropriate facial expressions. Even so, Reed had a legendary kindness toward actors, probably derived from his famous father, the late Victorian actor-manager, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Reed liked working with children and worked very successfully indeed with them in Odd Man Out, The Third Man, and Oliver! as well as this film.
We see everything through Phil’s eyes—except for the fatal fall. Reed splits ours and the characters’ views of Mrs. Baines’s death. Baines has walked away, and he assumes that she fell down the long staircase. The boy is running down the four-story fire escape and he sees pieces of the scene through the windows as he passes them—in the manner of a filmed fall edited into segments. From the pieces of the fall that Phil sees, he concludes that Baines pushed Mrs. Baines down the stairs.
Then, the last clue that the police find that exonerates Baines is in fact false. That footprint on the dangerous ledge was left by Mrs. Baines the day before. It didn’t mark her fatal fall, although, to be sure, she did in fact fall from that ledge. Even the clue that leads to the truth is a half-truth. And when the boy tries to tell the police the truth about the footprint, they refuse to believe him.
Counterpointing this muddle about “the” truth are two curious references to time. One policeman lends Phil his chiming pocket watch to keep him amused while they question Baines. More strangely, in the middle of the interrogation, a clock winder comes in. He insists that he has to give the clocks their weekly winding right now, halting the police in their questioning. Why did Reed and Greene put these in and just at this point? I think they wanted to suggest a mechanical exactitude in contrast to the jumble these fallible humans are creating.
Is that why, so often, Phil peers out at the world through bars? Or over a wall? Or from under the covers? Phil confuses a barred public toilet with another animal exhibit. I think Reed is saying that not just Phil but all humans are barred from the truth, the simple truth such as a clock or a watch states. We are all fallen.
Only we, the viewers, have the complete view—the truth. Or do we? We are, after all, watching a film, a fiction, not the “truth.” Reed’s somewhat unconvincing happy ending that finishes the movie reminds us—or me, at any rate—of the artificiality of what I have been watching, the complete “truth” and all. The ultimate idol that has fallen, then, is truth itself. And its fall is accompanied by the return of the fallible feminine in the person of Phil’s loving but absent mother.
This team, Carol Reed, Alexander Korda, and Graham Greene was working in one of the high periods of world cinema, British films of the mid-1940s to early 1950s. Think just of: David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Oliver Twist (1948); Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948; Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948); the Ealing Studios’ comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). The Fallen Idol (1947) ranks among the best of them.