The film centres around a young french boy, Phillipe (Bobby Henry) living in the french embassy in London. His ambassador parents are most often out of the house on official duties so he is raised almost entirely by the butler and the housekeeper, Bains (Ralph Richardson) and Mrs Bains (Sonia Dresdel). He idolises Bains and spends most of his time following him around the house helping him with work - that is when he isn't tending to the snake he's been hiding in a brick outside his bedroom.
After an argument at the lunch table with the cruel Mrs Bains, Phillipe disobeys Mrs Bains and follows Bains into London where he finds him in an emotional conversation with a pretty young girl, Julie (Michèle Morgan), whom Bains tells Phillipe is his niece. Phillipe doesn't understand what's going on but they are deciding to end their affair (a la Brief Encounter).
Mrs Bains finds out about the affair from Phillipe, and she pretends to be gone from the house for a few days so that Bains will bring Julie to the house and she can confront them. Bains finds her and there is a huge argument during which Mrs Bains falls to her death from a staicase. Phillipe only sees that she has fallen and that Bains is looking down at her. After remembering the epic tales of Bains's adventures in Africa (which he made up to entertain Phillipe) he decides that Bains is the only one who could've done it. Did he or didn't he?
I thought this film was extremely clever and very beautifully shot and crafted. Ralph Richardson (who I wrote about when he played James Tryone in Long Day's Journey Into Night) was fantastic, and he's obviously one third of the holy trinity of British Actors, Laurence Olivier and John Guilgud being the two others. He really perfected all the delicate mannerisms of his character. This was a perfect example of a performance that didn't have to rely on melodramatic facial elastics to create a strong impression. It was the very fact that he was so understated that made it so interesting.
Bobby Henry was adorable as Phillipe and he also had the trouble of acting bilingually - French, and English with a strong posh French accent - and he pulled off the little boy thing without making him whiney or annoying. He didn't have as prolific a career as a child actor as you would've expected but even this one film was a huge achievement. Similarly, Michèle Morgan was lovely as Julie. She played the part with the sensitivity and warmth that you felt the film needed from a female character, as you got more and more depressed by the hideousness of Mrs Bates, who was also played very well by Sonia Dresdel.
Carol Reed really had a chance to show off his photographic talents, especially with the darkly lit shadowy hide and seek sequence in the deserted quarters of the French Embassy. But aside from that there was a great feeling of friendship and real trust between Bains and Phillipe that was hard to force and made the film that much more upsetting when their trust was broken and he was no longer the role model he thought he was (hence the "Fallen Idol"). It was a pleasure to watch and made me really want to rewatch The Third Man! Also, David Lean got his start in movies by working as Carol Reed's cameraman!