Through a Lens Darkly
The Blinding Glare of Our Idols
The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;
They have ears, but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths.
They that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them.
~ Psalm 125:15-18
On the list of successful alliances 'twixt Screen and Pen—a list long on years but short on entries—the harmonious pairing of David Lean and Noël Coward deserves pride of place. The E.M. Forster trio from the Merchant Ivory team runs a close second in the minds of many critics, I suspect. And my own generation of moviegoers would doubtless recommend the boundless enthusiasm of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy—a bit rebellious at times, but faithful in spirit to Tolkien's revered original.
Now, thanks to the labors of The Criterion Collection and their vast stable of under-recognized gems, I have another memorable combination to add to the shortlist: the inimitable Carol Reed, and everyone's favorite beleaguered cinemo-literary Catholic, Graham Greene. The Third Man—easily their most recognized collaboration—is justly praised, and remains one of the finest noirs of all time. But The Fallen Idol, adapted from the short Greene story "The Basement Room" and released barely a year before the more famous Man, is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as its sister-film.
Set in then-contemporary London, it details the exploits of young Phillipe (son of the French ambassador), whose mother's grave illness has left him in the charge of the embassy's thoroughly British butler, Baines. Quiet, unassuming, nearly invisible to his employers, and desperate for a bit more attention, Baines fills the young boy's motherless hours with thrilling, violent (and entirely fabricated) accounts of his pre-embassy exploits in Darkest Africa. The impressionable Phillipe—his father frequently absent and his mother loitering at Death's Door—is enthralled by the aging servant and hangs on his every (mostly inaccurate) word.
Mrs. Baines, however, is not the recipient of such wide-eyed fascination. A harsh, domineering woman whose relentless nagging has driven her husband into the arms of one of the embassy's secretaries, she is a nearly constant source of terror to the young boy. Yet when Phillipe accidentally discovers his idol's infidelity, he becomes the focal point of Mrs. Baines' attentions. Her bribes, insincere affections, and wheedling ways—desperate attempts to expose her husband's dalliances—prove surprisingly effective, and she quickly wrests the entire story from his well-intentioned heart.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.