I sometimes do too much fieldwork before seeing a movie, building up a whole structure of preconceptions that I then have to trundle into the theater with me and crane my neck to peer around at the thing itself. Long ago I recognized that this sport was spoiling perfectly good movies for me, or even preempting me from seeing some of them. So I stopped giving more than a skim to reviews of new movies until after I’d seen them. But at the prospect of an older movie, I still head straight to the bookshelf and, typically, David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary and Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies: two critical voices that are always compelling to me if not infallible.
I didn’t make it this weekend to Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, written by Graham Greene from his own story and starring Sir Ralph Richardson. It’s playing in a new print through Thursday at the Music Box. Despite being busy this week, I still have a chance to catch it on its final night. (The Music Box is always an added draw, as there’s live organ music on weekends and real butter for the popcorn all of the time.) Beyond the obvious appeal of the Graham Greene/Carol Reed partnership, which later produced The Third Man, I’m drawn to this one by what the bookshelf critics say. Kael sounds like she never really made up her mind:
The plot is just about perfect….There are terrifying, tense moments, too; the whole movie is very cleverly worked out. Maybe it’s too deliberate, though, with its stylized lighting and its rigid pacing–you wait an extra beat between the low-key lines of dialogue. It’s too deliberate and too hushed to be much fun. It’s a polite thriller–which is close to a contradiction in terms.
I’m not sure what, but something about that makes me think she did have fun, then talked herself out of it. In any case, it’s an interesting criticism that does nothing at all to dampen my wish to see the film. Thomson, on the other hand, has no such ambivalence, and says “The tone may be straight Greene–that drip of mortification, of agony vindicated–but Reed served it with understanding.” Nice precis of Greene there, one which will no doubt please my friend who spent all last week emailing me mordant quotes from Greene’s novels–just randomly trying to break my spirit, I guess–and whom I’m trying to get to accompany me to The Fallen Idol on Thursday. (People seem to love going to the movies alone, but I really don’t. In my life, I’ve seen one movie alone in the theater, a good one: California Split. That was five years ago, and not an uplifting experience.)
Then Thomson has this from Greene himself:
When I describe a scene, I capture it with the moving eye of the cine-camera rather than with the photographer’s eye–which leaves it frozen. In this precise domain I think that the cinema has influenced me. Authors like Walter Scott and the Victorians were influenced by paintings and constructed their backgrounds as though they were static and came from the hands of a Constable. I work with the camera, following my characters and their movements. So the landscape moves. When I turn my head and look at the harbor, my head moves, the houses move, the boats move, don’t they?
And that’s part of the reason Greene gets a two-page spread in the Biographical Dictionary. I like the quotation, and I know what he means. But, to nitpick only because he’s possibly my favorite painter, the choice of Constable as a painter of static images is a little strange: whose clouds move more than Constable’s? Nobody’s, that’s whose.
If I do find a victim…er, date, and do see The Fallen Idol Thursday, you’ll be the first to hear about it.