In Carol Reed’s 1948 film, The Fallen Idol, Ralph Richardson plays Baines, a butler charged with taking care of the French ambassador’s 10 year old son. Richardson is trapped in an unhappy marriage while he carries on an illicit affair with an employee from the French embassy, played by Michele Morgan. By the time he came to do this film, Richardson had already been working in the theatre for over 28 years, so it is no surprise that his performance here is one of consummate form and control, of precision and rhythm, excluding the non-essential to create something quietly intense. Most of Richardson’s scenes are with the boy, where he masterfully creates a mixture of humility and authority. Then, later on, there is the scene when his wife is accidentally killed, and Richardson gives us shock and dignity while at the same time concealing a lie, it’s extraordinary.
However, Richardson’s greatness is fully revealed during a cafe scene. Michele Morgan is leaving the country and it will be the last time he sees her unless he leaves his wife. While Richardson explains that it “wouldn’t work” between them, the boy happens to pass by the cafe and quite innocently joins them. In response, Richardson pretends that Morgan is his niece, and for the rest of the scene he must hide his emotion despite the fact he is losing her. His restraint is agonising yet the hidden anguish is palpable, not to say truly moving. Richardson’s performance in the scene reaches it’s apogee however, when Morgan leaves the cafe and he will never see her again. Still he must restrain himself because of the boy, but Richardson deals with the emotion firing inside of himself by displacing it: firstly by nibbling his finger, then he picks-up a newspaper from a nearby table and pretends to read it, before moving to a cabinet and feigning to look at the objects inside of it. It’s one of the finest examples of how physical actions can powerfully reveal the internal life of the actor while at the same time deliver complex, external expressions.
Of course, Richardson’s performance is not technique only, we witness too his own personal truth. The depth and courage Richardson brings to the role is his own depth and courage, it’s the depth and courage of the man himself. Above all however, to deliver this kind of intense but repressed suffering, requires some understanding of it, which in turn stems from a deep compassion. And it is in his immense compassion that Richardson’s true greatness lies, his immense compassion for human experience, it inflects everything he does, and renders his work so powerful and moving.