The figure in the dead of night, running desperately down rain-slicked London cobblestones in Carol Reed's wonderfully suspenseful 1948 black-and-white gem The Fallen Idol casts a giant shadow on the walls.
But this isn't some hulking predator, or some fugitive evading the law. It is but a child, a young boy (Bobby Henrey), barefoot, in his pajamas, crisscrossing the streets, scared out of his wits.
In this odd and masterful thriller, written by Graham Greene (adapting his own story, "The Basement Room"), the boy, Phillipe, believes he has witnessed a murder.
Like films from other genres that view the adult world through a child's eyes (Hope and Glory, To Kill a Mockingbird, Invaders from Mars), The Fallen Idol finds innocence and inquisitiveness at odds with corruption, violence, desire, deceit - all the stuff that grown-ups trade in.
The setting couldn't be grander: a palatial embassy in the tonier precincts of the British capital. The towheaded Phillipe is the son of the ambassador, who is often away, as is the boy's mother.
In his parents' stead, he spends his time with the embassy's majordomo, Baines (a subtle, stalwart Ralph Richardson). Baines jokes with the boy, tells him tall tales.
Down in the basement kitchen, Phillipe shares meals with Baines and his wife (Sonia Dresdel), who is stern and sour. She treats her husband and the boy with equal disdain.
No wonder Baines has fallen for a secretary at the embassy, Julie (Michèle Morgan), courting the young woman in secret - a secret that Phillipe, wide-eyed and without guile, discovers.
Baines tells the lad that Julie is his niece, and that seems to make sense, until Phillipe shares said information with Mrs. Baines. What happens next is the stuff of Hitchcock, with a grand curving staircase, a flower pot, a phony telegram, and a troop of doctors and police officers figuring prominently.
The pieces of The Fallen Idol (presented in a pristine restoration - see it on the big screen) fit together exquisitely. The young Henrey is a marvel - sweet, skittish, talking to his pet snake, taking everything in. Richardson appears gently comic at times, genuinely troubled at others. His performance is pitched just right.
And Reed, perhaps best known for the picture he would direct immediately following The Fallen Idol - the postwar thriller The Third Man, with a zither on the soundtrack and Orson Welles at his most sinister - summons a mood of dread, of guilt, of dreamlike intensity.
The Fallen Idol
isn't The Third Man, but it comes close.
The Fallen Idol
Directed by Carol Reed. With Bobby Henrey, Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan, and Sonia Dresdel. Distributed by Rialto Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.EndText