Wednesday, April 07, 2010


This well-regarded British film from director Carol Reed, with a screenplay by Graham Greene, is hard to categorize. It's usually described as a thriller, though a small-scale domestic one, with Hitchcockian touches, but it's also a story of a child completely at sea in a world of adults and how he copes and learns (or fails to). 9-year-old Bobby Henrey is the son of the French ambassador to England. Generally ignored (benignly) by his parents, he has bonded with the butler (Ralph Richardson) who has become his buddy, to the chagrin of the head maid, Richardson's shrewish wife (Sonia Dresdel). With his mother ill overseas and his father off to attend to her, Henrey runs wild in the huge embassy mansion with only his pet snake to occupy his time--and we know early on that the snake's time is marked as Dresdel hates it and keeps demanding that the boy get rid of it. One afternoon, in search of adventure, Henrey sneaks out of the house to follow Richardson to a café where he is in intense conversation with a young woman (Michele Morgan) who is a part-time maid at the embassy. We know right away that she is his lover, though Richardson tells the boy (in one in a series of lies that wind up backfiring) that she is his niece. Later, Dresdel finds out about the rendezvous and says she's leaving town to visit a relative, though actually she sticks around and catches Richardson and Morgan spending a stolen day together. That night, Dresdel and Richardson argue at the top of the huge staircase. When Richardson goes back to his bedroom to be with Morgan, Dresdel tries to spy on them and accidentally falls down the stairs to her death. Henrey, thinking that Richardson killed his wife, tries to cover for him when the police arrive, but he only makes things worse and Richardson winds up caught in a huge web of lies (both the boy's and his own).

This black and white film is beautifully shot, making wonderful use of large, nearly empty interiors--the two visual high points of the film are a wild hide-and-seek game in the dark house just before Dresdel shows up to put a damper on things, and a noirish scene in which the scared boy goes running through the night streets of London after Dresdel's death. Many critics give young Henrey high praise, though my reaction is more mixed--admittedly, my problem has more to do with the fact that much of his dialogue was obviously post-dubbed, a pet peeve of mine. Still, I doubt that any other young actor could have done much better with such a demanding role, and Richardson more than makes up for any of Henrey's faults with an excellent underplayed performance that makes us believe in the solid and unsentimental bond between the two. Dresdel, who I'd never heard of before this, is just as good in fleshing out her nasty, unstable character. There's a fun scene in the police station involving a saucy hooker played by Dora Bryan, The somewhat humorous ending is a bit strange, though satisfying. Ultimately, I think this film is a bit overrated, but it is still well worth catching. The Criterion disc picture is gorgeous. [DVD]

No comments: