Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘fallen idol

You might believe that the couple – a man, older, upright but with a hint of the debonair; and a woman. elegant, reserved, much younger – with the nine-year-old blond boy, are on a family visit to London Zoo. In fact, we’re bearing witness to a growing dysfunction. The boy, Philippe, is the near-forgotten child of diplomats whose only friend is his parents’ butler, Baines. Yet the zoo trip is no expression of surrogate parenthood but a subterfuge so that Baines may spend time with his extramarital lover, Julie, as well as safeguard Philippe’s silence, after he interrupted a previous assignation between the two.

The London Zoo sequence in Carol Reed’s 1948 film, The Fallen Idol, is an embellishment of a passage in Graham Greene’s short story, The Basement Room, in which Baines takes “Philip” to attend his rendezvous with “Emmy”. As our first Reel Time Short Stories study – and thanks to Steenbeck for the comment that inspired the reading and, after many years, second viewing – we’re looking at a short story adapted for the screen by, in this case, the story’s creator.

Greene seems to have understood cinema and in Reed he had a collaborator adept at reflecting the poetics of the original. Much is retained: Ralph Richardson’s Baines is a slippery fantasist, breezy with a charm and confidence that evaporates by the end, leaving him with, in the words of the story, “his old soft stupid expression”; Philip’s mantra of “This is life”, as he ventures into the London streets and towards adult life, is made real for us in Reed’s choreography of the city, something of a mid-point between the Vienna of another collaboration with Greene, The Third Man [left], and the alternative London presented in his Oliver!

For two-thirds of the film, give or take the fleshing out of characters or scenes, we could be watching the straight, stylish rendering of the short story’s narrative. Gradually, though, Greene the screenwriter transforms his downbeat Greek tragedy into a black comedy of misunderstanding and romantic redemption. In adaptation, Greene can tug at the heartstrings but find room for acidic asides – Dora Bryan’s prostitute’s happy declaration to Phile that she knows his dad – whereas in the text, his curmudgeon bleeds through even the naive POV with withering observations on the flailing ambitions and alienations that make up a society:

Philip had never seen the girl, but he remembered Baines had a niece. She was thin and drawn, and she wore a white mackintosh; she meant nothing to Philip; she belonged to a world about which he knew nothing at all. He couldn’t make up stories about her, as he could make them up about withered Sir Hubert Reed, the Permanent Secretary, about Mrs. Wince-Dudley, who came once a year from Penstanley in Suffolk with a green umbrella and an enormous black handbag, as he could make them up about the upper servants in all the houses where he went to tea and games. She just didn’t belong. He thought of mermaids and Undine, but she didn’t belong there either, nor to the adventures of Emil, nor to the Bastables. She sat there looking at an iced pink cake in the detachment and mystery of the completely disinherited, looking at the half-used pots of powder which Baines had set out on the marble-topped table between them.

While Greene manages to alter the plot and some of the tone in order to engage the film audience’s sympathies – and it’s true that Baines and his lover are more passionate and appealing in the film, and Mrs Baines more malevolent – we can detect examples of the short story approach carrying through into the film. The resolution of the narrative within a self-contained or claustrophobic space is a short story characteristic, as we’ve discussed previously, and it’s worth noting that there are differences between the way London is used here and the way the action is played out against the city backdrops in the two celebrated Reed films I mentioned above. Here, we glimpse it in passing or look over it, like the Lady of Shallot, from a remote tower. Philip/Phile in his desolate principality, swallowed by the enormous staircase through whose banister teeth he views life; Baines and Mrs Baines in their loveless marriage; Emmy/Julie in her hopeless fixation on a man offering her no real future: these are familiar inhabitants of a short story and the film resists the temptation to let them taste a world beyond this captivity.

Finally, it comes down to the detail, as it must in short fiction. As Philip/Phile uncomprehendingly bursts in on Baines and Emmy/Julie in their erstwhile secret café, the lovers part in hurried and harrowing fashion. The film makes more of this, with an almost comically overlong 3rd person conversation about the plans of Julie’s “friend” to leave the country. That sequence, though, is rounded off by a visual detail that any short story writer would love to have depicted: Richardson, as Baines, disappears behind a clouded glass partition and we see his silhouette slump and the shadow of his hand reach to clasp his mouth. When he collects himself and returns to the table where Phile is still munching cake, the platitude he comes out with (“The cup that cheers”) is taken directly from the story, an ironic epitaph for a broken afternoon in lives where nothing certain will remain in one piece:

“Who is she?” Philip asked. “Is she your niece?”
“Oh, yes,” Baines said, “that’s who she is; she’s my niece,” and poured the last drops of water onto the coarse black leaves in the teapot.
“May as well have another cup,” Baines said.
“The cup that cheers,” he said hopelessly, watching the bitter black fluid drain out of the spout.

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