The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Red Balloon (1956)

Toronto Film Society presented The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Red Balloon (1956) on Sunday, June 16, 2024 as part of the Season 76 Fall Series, Programme 7.


Production Company: London Film Productions.  Producer: Carol Reed.  Director: Carol Reed.  Screenplay: Graham Greene, William Templeton, Leslie Storm, based on The Basement Room by Graham Greene.  Cinematographer: Georges Périnal.  Editor: Oswald Hafenrichter.  Music: William Alwyn.  Released September 30, 1948.

Cast: Ralph Richardson (Baines), Michèle Morgan (Julie), Sonia Dresdel (Mrs. Baines), Bobby Henrey (Phillipe), Denis O’Dea (Inspector Crowe), Jack Hawkins (Detective Ames).

“O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!” –    [Excerpt from Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field by Sir Walter Scott, 1808]

The Fallen Idol is a gripping, suspenseful story with excellent performances from a stellar cast of British actors. Director Carol Reed created what has become a highly regarded classic drama. The film is based on a short story by Graham Greene, The Basement Room (1936). Greene co-wrote the script with Scottish playwright and screenwriter William Templeton, and Scottish writer ‘Lesley Storm’, the pen-name for Mabel Cowie. The script contains some very clever comedic lines and foreshadowing.

Carol Reed’s direction along with the cinematography and art direction make impressive use of shadows and close ups. A particularly effective scene is when Mrs. Baines confronts the boy in his bed. Art Director Vincent Korda and cinematographer Georges Perinal have created a visually engaging film with the use of exterior locations in Belgrave Square, the London Zoo, and a night scene filmed in Chelsea, West London.

The interiors of the embassy, where much of the story takes place, show an opulent “upstairs” and utilitarian “downstairs”. The use of stairs figures prominently in the narrative; from the large, opulent main staircase in the embassy, to the stairs leading to the basement and also the exterior fire escape that the boy, Philippe, uses to sneak out of his room after being confined by the not-so-nice housekeeper, Mrs. Baines. The final confrontation between Baines and his shrewish wife, Mrs. Baines, takes place on the grand staircase of the embassy. It is interesting to note that credit for assistant directorship is given to Guy Hamilton. Hamilton started with Alexander Korda as a second unit director, worked his way up to assistant director with Carol Reed, and eventually directed his own films including four movies in the James Bond franchise. Hamilton credited Carol Reed for his success as a filmaker;  he said, “Carol Reed was the biggest influence on me and on everything that I did.”

Sir Ralph Richardson gives a flawless performance as Baines, the fallen idol of the story. Sonia Dresdel plays the angular and severe Mrs. Baines; a thoroughly unlikable character but perhaps the only truthful character in the film. Ms. Dresdel was active in British film, television and theatre as an actress and director from 1940 until her death in 1976, and was held in high regard by both critics and audience alike. Theatre critic Philip Hope Wallace said she was “an actress of high definition with a real power to take an audience by the wrist and give them the works. She had terrific personality and was terribly underused and misused.”

The film’s supporting cast is made up of British cinema stalwarts. Policemen and detectives played by: Jack Hawkins (Bridge on the River Kwai), Bernard Lee (the recurring character “M” in James Bond movies) Torin Thatcher (Snows of Kilimanjaro), Denis O’Dea (John Ford’s films The Informer, The Plough and the Stars, and Mogambo; and Odd Man Out directed by Carol Reed).  A well known and versatile British actress who was active in UK films and television from 1947 to 2005, Dora Bryan, plays a sympathetic “working girl” who comforts the boy while in the police station. She delivers a couple of real gems of dialogue in her small role. Prolific character actor, Hay Petrie, has a small comedic and charming role as a clock winder who briefly interrupts the police investigation.

The Fallen Idol was very well received when it was released and did extremely well at the box office, both in Britain and abroad. It has become a classic of British cinema and was placed at number 45 on the Top 100 Best British films in a poll of critics and members of the film industry by Time Out magazine in 2022.


Production Company: Films Montsouris.  Producer: Albert Lamorisse.  Director: Albert Lamorisse.  Screenplay: Albert Lamorisse.  Cinematographer: Edmond Séchan.  Editor: Pierre Gillette.  Music: Maurice Le Roux.

Cast: Pascal Lamorisse (Pascal), Sabine Lamorisse (La Petite Fille au Ballon Bleu).

A lovely film for all ages, The Red Balloon is an award-winning fantasy film merging the innocence of childhood and stark, grey realty. While the film is shot in muted Technicolour, the overall tones are grey, except for the vivid red balloon, and splashes of colours here and there; almost as if the cityscape is only just starting to bloom after the long, dreary days of post-war Paris. There are many scenes in this film of a child holding a vibrant red balloon, a symbol of innocence, rebirth and hope, still seen in the modern Zeitgeist, like Banksy’s Girl with Balloon.

The street scenes are a time capsule of Paris in the post World War II years. The film is shot in the Paris neighbourhood of Ménilmontant, a working class neighbourhood that, in the early to mid-20th century, suffered considerable urban decay. It has many narrow cobblestone streets and one of the highest hills in Paris, all of which were used effectively by the director.

By the 1960’s, the Ménilmontant area started to become a home to artists, musicians, and other counter culture types, giving it a bohemian feel. Much of the neighbourhood and its buildings used in the film have since been replaced with modern apartment buildings and a city park, the Parc De Belleville. Fortunately some of the old narrow cobblestone streets remain as well as Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix de Ménilmontant (circa 1863-1880), one of the largest Catholic churches in Paris.

The director, Albert Lamorisse, had his son, Pascal, play the main character and his daughter, Sabine, is the girl with the blue balloon. The twin boys in the red coats, near the end of the film, are David and Renaud Sechan, nephews of the film’s director of photography, Edmond Sechan. The star of the film is a balloon played by…a balloon. In an incredible combination of directorial skill and camera work, this simple red balloon is the central character of the film and evinces much feeling from the audience. With better acting chops than most well-paid actors, the balloon is coy, playful, teasing, affectionate, loving, sad, mournful and, lastly, resigned to its fate.

The film received immensely positive reviews; it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a BAFTA Special Award, and National Board of Review, Top Foreign Film. The Red Balloon also won an Academy Award for Best Writing and Best Original Screenplay, the only short film to have done so to this day. An example of great film art, the popularity of The Red Balloon has not waned; it is often screened at film festivals and film classes. In fact, it was featured in my Media Studies class in high school…back when we took notes with quill and ink.

Notes by Bruce Whittaker

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