In the year prior to filming his magnum opus The Third Man, director Carol Reed took on an interesting little tale of a boy, the son of the French Ambassador in London, who has a sort of hero-worship relationship with the embassy’s English butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson Doctor Zhivago, Time Bandits). The boy, Phillipe (Bobby Henrey, who had only one other role, and just turned 77) is pretty lonely and bored in the embassy with his mother being quite ill for an extended period and his father being away most of the time. Baine’s wife (stage actress Sonia Dresdel, Sorry, Wrong Number) is the worst sort of termagant, prickly to her husband and downright mean to Phillipe.
The movie begins as we learn that Phillipe’s mother is heading home soon, but the embassy is going to be mostly closed for a while: Just he and the Baines and a small support crew are manning the place. The antics between Baines and Phillipe are amusing, and practically set up the film as a family film, until Phillipe (who wanders around in London alone a lot, as small children do in the ’40s) stumbles across Baines in a café, where the butler is having an emotional breakup with his “niece”.
The theme of the movie is “secrets”.
Well, despite being sworn to secrecy, Phillipe ends up accidentally spilling the beans to Mrs. Baines, who then swears him to another secret (not to tell that she knows), and a plot to humiliate her husband ends up with a dead Mrs. Baines. And suddenly, the movie shifts from cheerful to full-on noir, as Baines is (naturally) suspected of his wife’s murder. It’s a classic noir set of twists: The police, perfectly willing to ascribe her death an accident, stumble across a piece of very incriminating evidence. Phillipe, confused by the numerous secrets he must keep, ends up implicating Baines rather than helping him, as he wants to. (Phillipe is convinced, through Baines idle tall tale telling, that Baines has killed before.)
Not just the tone of the movie changes: The last half is full of long shadows and stark contrasts, like they flipped the “noir” switch and everything changed. There are shots very reminiscent of the (yet to be filmed) Third Man. Ultimately, it has that sort of quirky murder mystery feel, where things are serious right up until they aren’t any more (like with Dial M for Murder or numerous other films of the era where whimsy and murder live side-by-side).
Graham Greene (writer of The Third Man) wrote the screenplay based on his own short story.
Amusing bit early on: Baines is telling Phillipe of confronting black tribesmen on one of his African adventures. I forget what term he uses but it’s not the preferred nomenclature today. But when Phillipe asks him why he came back, Baines said tells him it was time to get married. And when Phillipe asks him whether they have women in Africa, Baines says yes, but points out that they’re all the wrong color. Philippe doesn’t comprehend.
It’s a cute exchange, interpretable in a number of ways perfectly acceptable to our exquisite modern sensibilities, but I couldn’t help but wonder if that exchange was partly why I’d never even heard of this great movie. Maybe not. It’s terribly English through-and-through, so perhaps it’s never been well-regarded on this side of the pond. But it’s a must see for fans of The Third Man.