The Blinding Glare of Our Idols

The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;
They have ears, but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths.
They that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them.

-- Psalm 125:15-18

On the list of successful alliances 'twixt Screen and Pen—a list long on years but short on entries—the harmonious pairing of David Lean and Noël Coward deserves pride of place. The E.M. Forster trio from the Merchant Ivory team runs a close second in the minds of many critics, I suspect. And my own generation of moviegoers would doubtless recommend the boundless enthusiasm of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy—a bit rebellious at times, but faithful in spirit to Tolkien's revered original.

Now, thanks to the labors of The Criterion Collection and their vast stable of under-recognized gems, I have another memorable combination to add to the shortlist: the inimitable Carol Reed, and everyone's favorite beleaguered cinemo-literary Catholic, Graham Greene. The Third Man—easily their most recognized collaboration—is justly praised, and remains one of the finest noirs of all time. But The Fallen Idol, adapted from the short Greene story "The Basement Room" and released barely a year before the more famous Man, is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as its sister-film.

Set in then-contemporary London, it details the exploits of young Phillipe (son of the French ambassador), whose mother's grave illness has left him in the charge of the embassy's thoroughly British butler, Baines. Quiet, unassuming, nearly invisible to his employers, and desperate for a bit more attention, Baines fills the young boy's motherless hours with thrilling, violent (and entirely fabricated) accounts of his pre-embassy exploits in Darkest Africa. The impressionable Phillipe—his father frequently absent and his mother loitering at Death's Door—is enthralled by the aging servant and hangs on his every (mostly inaccurate) word.

Mrs. Baines, however, is not the recipient of such wide-eyed fascination. A harsh, domineering woman whose relentless nagging has driven her husband into the arms of one of the embassy's secretaries, she is a nearly constant source of terror to the young boy. Yet when Phillipe accidentally discovers his idol's infidelity, he becomes the focal point of Mrs. Baines' attentions. Her bribes, insincere affections, and wheedling ways—desperate attempts to expose her husband's dalliances—prove surprisingly effective, and she quickly wrests the entire story from his well-intentioned heart.

Mrs. Baines' hard-won knowledge proves deadly. Angrily confronting her husband and his paramour one night, she slips on the embassy stairway and falls to her death. Phillipe, a silent and accidental witness, profoundly misunderstands his friend's role in her death—a misunderstanding sharpened by Baines' undeserved status as a man of wildly adventurous passions and violent tendencies. When Scotland Yard's finest arrive on the scene and begin to ask a series of awkward questions, the young boy lies repeatedly in a misguided attempt to protect his beloved Baines. Phillipe's fantastical statements do more harm than good; with each desperate falsehood, the case against the butler grows more ironclad.

Questions of honesty, intent, and the danger (or value) of lying—questions that have produced much consternation and controversy (and genuinely helpful conversation) in the Catholic blogosphere—drive the film's most obvious moral problems. But beneath those questions lies one that has long been lurking on the outskirts of my conscience: Why does the Psalmist's warning concerning idols and their makers center around the chilling reminder that "They that make them are like unto them"?

In The Fallen Idol, Phillipe is more than simply fascinated by and drawn to Baines; he is transformed by him. The servant's innocuous tall tales, harmlessly rooted in his desire for affection and attention, prove to be his undoing when Phillipe, so thoroughly steeped in the romantic persona his friend has created, is no longer capable of recognizing Baines' true (and innocent) character. The young boy's good-hearted lies mirror his elder's actions closely: innocent enough at their origin, the well-intentioned dishonesties grow wildly out of control, and when the time comes for Phillipe to save Baines by a simple telling of the truth, his word is no longer believed by those he most desperately wishes to convince. Through his desire to be more like his mentor, Phillipe has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams; he has made Baines into an idol, and has been changed by that idol into the very thing he has been idolizing.

God warns us against idols not because He is jealous of our misguided affections, but because of their dangerous powers of transformation. Our pursuit of them does more than merely turn us away from Him; it changes us—subtly, but inextricably, altering the way we perceive the world, and destroying our ability to correctly recognize the relative value present in all created things. The pursuit of earthly idols—Fame, Mammon, Sex, Food, and a host of others—produces in us the very shortcomings of those things we wrongfully worship; all too quickly, we find ourselves mirroring their blindness, muteness, and deafness, leaving us gasping for the Divine Breath so vital to our salvation.

We like to think of our obsessions and idolatries in Augustinian terms—"Give me chastity and continence, only not yet"—confident that we can dismiss them as quickly and as easily as we please. But if we think that we can transfer our misguided affections back to God at a moment's notice, we are in for a harsh (and humbling) awakening. As The Fallen Idolreminds us, we become like the idols we pursue, and pursuit of earthly idols dooms us to a lifetime of struggling to fill our infinite desire with finite goods.

"We are what we eat," it is said. But far more importantly, we become what we worship. Is it such a surprise that worshiping anything but the Infinite Good leaves us unsatisfied?

Attribution(s): All images and stills are the property of The Criterion Collection and other respective production studios and distributors.