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.

Mrs. Baines' hard-won knowledge proves deadly. Angrily confronting her husband and his paramour one night, she slips on the embassy stairway and falls to her death. Phillipe, a silent and accidental witness, profoundly misunderstands his friend's role in her death—a misunderstanding sharpened by Baines' undeserved status as a man of wildly adventurous passions and violent tendencies. When Scotland Yard's finest arrive on the scene and begin to ask a series of awkward questions, the young boy lies repeatedly in a misguided attempt to protect his beloved Baines. Phillipe's fantastical statements do more harm than good; with each desperate falsehood, the case against the butler grows more ironclad.

Questions of honesty, intent, and the danger (or value) of lying—questions that have produced much consternation and controversy (and genuinely helpful conversation) in the Catholic blogosphere—drive the film's most obvious moral problems. But beneath those questions lies one that has long been lurking on the outskirts of my conscience: Why does the Psalmist's warning concerning idols and their makers center around the chilling reminder that "They that make them are like unto them"?