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  1. #1
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    From the basement to the mainstream



    Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol (1948)



    Andrew Pulver

    Saturday October 23, 2004

    The Guardian





    Bobby Henrey as Philip in The Fallen Idol



    Author: The son of the headmaster of Berkhamsted school, Graham Greene (1904-91) became a Catholic in 1926, the same year he joined the Times newspaper as a subeditor. Three years later, he left to concentrate full time on writing: after three little-regarded offerings, he established his literary reputation with Stamboul Train (1932). A string of successful novels followed. In 1934, Greene left England to travel, including a long period in Liberia with his cousin Barbara - chronicled in Journey Without Maps (1937), his first book-length travelogue. The novella The Basement Room was, he wrote, "conceived on the cargo steamer on the way home ... to relieve the tedium of the voyage". It was published in 1935 as a five-day serial in the News Chronicle, for which he was paid £50. Greene's trip to west Africa stood him in good stead when he joined the SIS during the war, and was sent out to Sierra Leone.

    Story: Told in five short chapters, The Basement Room centres on a small boy, Philip, left alone for a few days by his parents with the family butler, Baines, and his wife. Baines is conducting an illicit relationship with a young girl; despite his hero-worship of the butler, Philip inadvertently reveals the secret to Mrs Baines. She lays a trap for her husband, catching him in flagrante; in the struggle with Baines, however, she falls down the stairs and is killed. Panicked, Philip rushes out into the street, and is brought home by a policeman - who is then alerted to possible murder by another of Philip's inadvertent responses.



    The film-makers: The son of actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Carol Reed (1906-76) made his name in the British studio system in the 1930s and 40s. After the war he established a British noir style with Odd Man Out (1947), with James Mason as a badly wounded IRA man, and was then put in touch with Greene by Alexander Korda, who wanted to capitalise on the success of the Boulting brothers' Brighton Rock (1947). Greene and Reed worked together on the script (which earned Greene an Oscar nomination). The newly knighted Ralph Richardson, already a leading cinematic character actor after The Four Feathers (1939), was cast as Baines, and Korda spotted child star Bobby Henrey on a book cover photograph.



    How book and film compare: Greene and Reed's script turned the moral structure of the story around while retaining its basic geometry, because they considered the culpability of the most likable character impossible to pull off in a film. Baines is now innocent of homicide (his wife slips to her death accidentally), but Philip's flight and unwary remarks may put Baines in the dock. The setting was also changed to make the story more plausible: Greene noted that "the large Belgravia house is already a period piece", so it became an embassy, and Philip the Francophone son of the ambassador.



    Inspirations and influences: Reed and Greene followed up The Fallen Idol by creating The Third Man (1949), arguably the most influential British film ever made. Traces of the The Third Man's landmark expressionist cinematography can be seen in The Fallen Idol, notably in point-of-view shots and Philip's dash through haunting night-time streets. But the pair would also collaborate on Our Man in Havana (1959), a far more straightforward, mainstream British hit of the era.

  2. #2
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    Did the butler do it?



    The Fallen Idol, based on a story by Graham Greene, was the author's favourite film of his work - even though it radically altered the original. David Lodge on a perfect partnership of writer and director



    Saturday November 4, 2006

    The Guardian



    There are many significant differences between the film The Fallen Idol (1948) and the short story on which it was based, "The Basement Room", although Graham Greene wrote both story and screenplay. The creative input of the film's director, Carol Reed, was crucial, as Greene warmly acknowledged, but he recognised at the outset that the structure and import of his story would need to be radically changed to make a successful film.



    Article continues

    Usually, writers who adapt their own work are more protective of the integrity of their original texts, and if they allow others to take over the task of adaptation they are often bitterly disappointed by the end result. Greene had cause to complain about the liberties Hollywood studios took with several of his novels, notably The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American. The Fallen Idol was a model of what the development of a movie should be, but very seldom is: a close collaboration between a writer and a director who enjoyed complete rapport, supported by a producer (Alexander Korda) who did not interfere with the creative process.



    The Fallen Idol was Greene's favourite among the films he wrote; he preferred it even to The Third Man (1949), also made in collaboration with Reed, because "it was more, I felt, a writer's film, and The Third Man more a director's film". Only the title of the film, imposed by its distributors, displeased Greene.



    He wrote "The Basement Room" in 1935, to alleviate the tedium of a voyage home from Liberia, where he had acquired the material for his travel book Journey Without Maps (1936). This recent experience no doubt suggested the African anecdotes with which the butler, Baines, regales the little boy left in his charge. In the story, they have for the most part the ring of truth, but in the film they are transparently fictitious, and at the end Baines has to admit to the disillusioned boy that he has never even been to Africa - just one of many differences between the two versions.



    Both story and film are essentially about a child's innocence prematurely exposed to adult experience, but this dramatic formula is worked out differently in each medium. In the short story, the emphasis is on how a seven-year-old boy's traumatic involvement in a crime of passion affects his later life as an adult. It begins with the departure of his upper-class English parents on a two-week holiday. For the first time in his life he ventures through the green baize door that separates the basement kitchen from the main house. The green baize door, marking a psychological as well as a territorial boundary, is a recurrent motif in Greene's work, which can be traced back to his schooldays at Berkhamstead school, where his father was headmaster: a green baize door separated the safe familial home from the threatening corridors and dormitories of the school where the young Greene, as the head's son, was subject to bullying and exclusion.



    At first young Philip welcomes the greater intimacy that he enjoys with his adored friend Baines in the new conditions, but Mrs Baines soon spoils the idyll by her malice and suspicion. When Philip accidentally observes an emotional meeting in a cafe between Baines and a young woman, he is drawn into a web of adult deception and intrigue without really understanding what is at stake. "He would never escape that scene," comments the authorial voice. "In a week he had forgotten it, but it conditioned his career, the long austerity of his life; when he was dying, rich and alone, it was said that he asked, 'Who is she?'"



    Baines asks the boy not to mention the girl, Emmy, to Mrs Baines. "'Of course not,' Philip said ... 'I understand, Baines.' But he didn't understand a thing; he was caught up in other people's darkness." When the suspicious Mrs Baines interrogates him later in his nursery bedroom, he betrays Baines's trust without meaning to, and she in turn tries to swear the boy to secrecy by bribing him with the promise of a new addition to his Meccano set. The authorial voice again interpolates: "He never opened his Meccano set again, never built anything, never created anything, died the old dilettante, 60 years later with nothing to show rather than preserve the memory of Mrs Baines's malicious voice saying good night, her soft determined footfalls on the stairs to the basement, going down, going down."



    The situation rapidly escalates into confrontation and violence. Mrs Baines pretends to go away, luring her husband into inviting Emmy to stay the night, then appears frighteningly at Philip's bedside, "like the witches of his dreams", demanding to know where the lovers are. Philip is speechless with fear, but when Mrs Baines hears tell-tale sounds from one of the guest bedrooms he screams a warning. Baines comes out of the bedroom and struggles with his furious wife. "She went over the banisters in a flurry of black clothes and fell into the hall." Philip flees in his pyjamas, and wanders the streets (a reprise of an episode in Greene's unhappy adolescence when he ran away from home and school and hid for a brief period on Berkhamstead Common) until spotted and taken to a police station. When a constable takes him back home, where Mrs Baines lies dead, he again involuntarily betrays Baines by mentioning Emmy. The story ends:



    "Out with it," the constable said, addressing Baines with professional ferocity, "who is she?" Just as the old man 60 years later startled his secretary, his only watcher, asking, "Who is she? Who is she?" Dropping lower and lower into death, passing on the way perhaps the image of Baines: Baines hopeless, Baines letting his head drop, Baines "coming clean".



    The recurrence of the phrase "Who is she?" anticipates the famous "Rosebud" enigma in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, but there is no trace of these authorial "flash-forward" passages in The Fallen Idol. Their effect could have been accommodated by presenting the main story as a long retrospect, framed and punctuated by scenes of the 67-year-old Philip on his deathbed; but imagining such a hypothetical adaptation reveals an interesting anomaly in Greene's story. In describing Philip on his deathbed, 60 years after the main action, the narrator is not prophesying but reporting. Since the story was first published in 1936, the character cannot have died at a later date; therefore the main action, when Philip was seven years old, must be taking place no later than 1876. In fact, it is represented as taking place well into the 20th century - there are references to motor cars and aeroplanes, and to the Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner (erected in 1925) - and, in the absence of any contrary indication, one assumes that it is set in the mid-1930s.



    I am not aware that this anomaly has ever been commented on before, and I did not notice it myself until I thought about the film adaptation of the story. Like the double time-scheme of Othello (in chronological time, there is no occasion when Desdemona could have been unfaithful to Othello with Cassio), it is something the reader, involved in the boy's story, simply doesn't notice.



    But when, in 1947, Greene and Reed considered how to translate the story into the more literal narrative medium of film, the problem would have been obvious. If the 67-year-old Philip were to be shown on his deathbed, it could not be later than "the present day" (ie 1947) and the main story would therefore have to be pushed back to 1887. Perhaps this was the crucial factor that prompted Greene to undertake a radical reworking of his story in the screenplay, in which the essentially Freudian meaning of the original (the psychological damage caused by suppressed memory of trauma) was displaced by a less bleak resolution of the plot. Greene, however, gave other reasons.



    From Greene's published comments, Nicholas Wapshott's biography of Carol Reed and other sources, we know how the film was conceived and developed. In May 1947, Reed suggested to Alexander Korda that they should adapt Greene's novel England Made Me (1935) for the screen. Korda counter-proposed "The Basement Room", and Reed was converted as soon as he read this "wonderful story". He arranged a lunch with Greene the next day to discuss the idea. Greene's first reaction, as he recalled a few years later, was surprise:



    "... because it seemed to me that the subject was unfilmable - a murder committed by the most sympathetic character and an unhappy ending which would certainly have imperilled the £250,000 that films nowadays cost. However, we went ahead, and in the conferences that ensued the story was quietly changed, so that the subject no longer concerned a small boy who unwittingly betrayed his best friend to the police, but dealt instead with a small boy who believed that his friend was a murderer and nearly procured his arrest by telling lies in his defence."



    Greene and Reed took three interconnecting rooms at a Brighton hotel, one for each of them with a secretary in the middle. Greene worked in the mornings while Reed slept late, and they would meet for lunch to discuss the progress of the script. "It was always I who thought, 'This is hopeless,'" Greene recalled. But with Reed's help and encouragement, the screenplay took shape as it departed more and more from the original story.



    It was Reed's suggestion to make the setting a foreign embassy in London, partly because very few British households had butlers in the austerity economy of 1947. This change prompted the construction of a magnificently grand set for the interior of the house, which would provide Reed with all kinds of opportunities for visual effects, emphasising the isolation and vulnerability of the little boy (now called Philippe) who so often observes the adult world from a distance: from high landings and balconies, between banisters, and through windows. His pet snake, however, was Greene's idea, and a very effective one on several levels - dramatic, symbolic and character-revealing.



    The film begins with the departure of Philippe's father, the ambassador of an unspecified francophone country, leaving to fetch his wife from a hospital somewhere abroad. At first it follows the narrative line of the story fairly closely, though expanding the dialogue in several scenes. There is, for instance, a long, coded conversation in the cafe between Baines and his girlfriend (here a secretary at the embassy called Julie), in the drolly uncomprehending presence of Philippe.



    But with the fatal struggle between Baines and his wife, the plot takes a radically new direction. In the story, it is clearly implied that Baines deliberately pushes her over the banister to her death; in the film, she falls accidentally off a window ledge from which she is trying to see into the bedroom where Baines has rejoined Julie. To the boy, glimpsing this action in stages (like clips from a movie) through windows on different levels as he flees the house down the fire escape, it looks as though Baines has murdered his wife, and when he is brought back home he naively tries to exculpate the butler from suspicion by lying on his behalf. This only makes Baines look more guilty, until the police discover Mrs Baines's footprint in the earth from an upset flowerpot on the window ledge and accept Baines's innocence.



    Ironically (the ironies come thick and fast in the last reel), the boy chooses this moment to tell the truth - namely that he was responsible for overturning the flowerpot two days before, thus jeopardising Baines's situation once again. But luckily, none of the grown-ups believes the boy.



    The narrative dynamic of the second half of the film is therefore quite different from that of the original short story. From a dark psychological study of childhood trauma it has been turned into a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, with occasional moments of delectable comedy, in which the hero is suspected of murder but at the last moment is vindicated and happily united with his beloved. Baines becomes a more sympathetic character, accepting some responsibility for the failure of his marriage and showing pity for his dead wife.



    What makes The Fallen Idol a film of exceptional distinction, however, is its presentation of the action mostly through the eyes of a child, who observes the adult world without understanding it - and that derived from the original story. It was a narrative strategy Greene may have borrowed from the novel What Maisie Knew by Henry James (a writer he admired enormously), which describes a series of interlocking adulterous affairs, divorces and remarriages from the point of view of a sensitive but only dimly comprehending child.



    It wouldn't have worked, of course, without Reed's inspired casting and direction of Bobby Henrey as Philippe, and the young boy's astonishingly natural, convincing performance was professionally matched by Ralph Richardson's in the role of Baines. In movies, even the best writers and directors depend ultimately on the actors to realise their intentions.



    · A new DVD of The Fallen Idol is released by the Criterion Collection on November 11

  3. #3
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    FINALLY!



    A DB7 teaser that will actually pay off! I've got it ordered for Tuesday, Nov 7th delivery. FINALLY. Nyah nyah nyah, DB! Yer not gonna tease me forever!



    (And thanks for the great info there... even when I poke you in the ribs, it's all quite useful to me.)

  4. #4
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    I received FALLEN IDOL in the Tuesday morning mail.



    FANTASTIC. Considerably more powerful than anticipated, and the video quality is top-notch. Crisp, a total delight. There's a 20-minute bonus I haven't watched yet - perhaps a discussion about Reed or Graham or both.



    DB, thank you for the write-ups that started my interest, and rest assured I'll hate you for each interesting gem you present that I can't find on DVD. You are a devil. But I love this one. Thanks!! Please, sir, more?

  5. #5
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    Could have been a masterpiece but for the ending, which was so rushed and unconvincing.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Rattigan
    Could have been a masterpiece but for the ending, which was so rushed and unconvincing.
    Hi Dave I will have to see this one again, cannot remember being disappointed with the ending, but I will check it out

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Rattigan
    Could have been a masterpiece but for the ending, which was so rushed and unconvincing.


    I have had another look and the ending seemed ok!! what did you find unconvincing??

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    I was lucky enough to catch the new print of this at Harbour Lights Cinema a year or two ago and was blown away by it. Surely a classic of Twentieth Century Cinema? I loved the camera angles and the whole child's eye view theme. The acting was superb. An intelligent film!

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    Quote Originally Posted by cymro glan
    I was lucky enough to catch the new print of this at Harbour Lights Cinema a year or two ago and was blown away by it. Surely a classic of Twentieth Century Cinema? I loved the camera angles and the whole child's eye view theme. The acting was superb. An intelligent film!
    your last 3 sentences are so true, glad you enjoyed this classic

  10. #10
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    The Fallen Idol is one of those films that should stand the test of time - of course it�s a classic film with a timeless story - that of a young boy who idolises an adult and whose reverence of that idol is corrupted by a tragic accident and the circumstances that surround it - a very adult impenetrable world to a child.



    The story is a great one because it could so easily simulate or correlate a part of our childhood - I would guess that many of us in our younger years had a person who was part of the adult world that we admired and looked up to and thought what a great person they were, only later to realise that that person might not be so great after all all, but was that do to with the childlike world we all lived in and its sugar-coated imaginings? Most probably yes! - This film conjures up that moment when suddenly the spell inevitably has to be broken by the grown-up world with all it�s realisms, hard truths and white lies.



    It�s beautiful film with a harsh reality - I always remember the moment when Baines says to the boy Phillipe on the balcony of the Embassy - something like �It's a great life if you don't weaken. And are prepared to fight for it� what a great bit of advice you a young child.



    Simon


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    FALLEN IDOL is part of the Carol Reed canon I have so recently discovered. And maybe, after a couple of viewings, nearly the best.



    Pardon my only new contribution: not a quibble, just an amusing point. The Embassy's flag disguised the French identity with its star. Perhaps Carol Reed and his set dressers weren't aware that this is the 140-yr old flag of Canada's Acadian community?



    Acadie is the thriving French-speaking culture that spans Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island - touching a corner of Qu�bec and Newfoundland as well. Acadiens will tell you with vigour that they were here before Qu�bec. And, by dam' - Acadiens didn't surrender to les maudits anglais - but many were deported in 1755. The Acadian diaspora created the 'Cajun culture in Louisiana and of course, Longfellow's poem "Evangeline".



    Anyway, we had the surprising pleasure to discover 21st century Acadie last year while exploring NS and PEI. A special treat: when the roadside mailboxes were painted red-white-blue with a gold star, we knew we were approaching an Acadian town. Good news for weary travellers, because an Acadian caf� has the best eats.



    Lower West Pubnico, Nova Scotia (2007) vs Carol Reed (1948):




  12. #12
    Senior Member Country: United States TimR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Keechelus
    FALLEN IDOL is part of the Carol Reed canon I have so recently discovered. And maybe, after a couple of viewings, nearly the best.



    Pardon my only new contribution: not a quibble, just an amusing point. The Embassy's flag disguised the French identity with its star. Perhaps Carol Reed and his set dressers weren't aware that this is the 140-yr old flag of Canada's Acadian community?



    Acadie is the thriving French-speaking culture that spans Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island - touching a corner of Qu�bec and Newfoundland as well. Acadiens will tell you with vigour that they were here before Qu�bec. And, by dam' - Acadiens didn't surrender to les maudits anglais - but many were deported in 1755. The Acadian diaspora created the 'Cajun culture in Louisiana and of course, Longfellow's poem "Evangeline".



    Anyway, we had the surprising pleasure to discover 21st century Acadie last year while exploring NS and PEI. A special treat: when the roadside mailboxes were painted red-white-blue with a gold star, we knew we were approaching an Acadian town. Good news for weary travellers, because an Acadian caf� has the best eats.



    Lower West Pubnico, Nova Scotia (2007) vs Carol Reed (1948):



    And Acadia extends over the border into northern Maine as well: along the St. John River in both our nations and further, down to Augusta.

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    Maine, of course! We haven't visited there yet, but an Acadienne friend grew up near Edmundston, NB, across the St John River from Madawaska, ME.



    She has told us that her extended family has many relatives in northern Maine. I'm sure they fly the Acadian/Fallen Idol flag there as well.



    Many hundreds of miles NE of Maine, near Ch�ticamp, Cape Breton Island NS, we saw this demonstration of Acadian pride: a large shed painted with the flag --




  14. #14
    Senior Member Country: United States TimR's Avatar
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    I watched this for the first time last night - a beautiful, haunting, sad film. I have often thought Carol Reed is the most under-rated great director of any nation, not only Britain. I know he is well respected, but he is rarely included with the very top directors - and he should be.



    The plot is expertly constructed. The elaborate web of seemingly white lies becomes increasingly compex and dangerous, and the attempts by Phillipe to protect Baines first by lying and then by desperately telling the truth are the basis for one of those remarkable scenes that are only found in first-rate British films. The intensity; the civility; the exchange of glances and the shifting tones of speech; the repetition of certain phrases and lines; the building suspense - they are all uniqe to this type of character study.



    Carol Reed tells the film from the boy's perspective and from a larger perspective at the same time. Objects and people are presented suddenly from a child's perspective: the road at night, a friendly policemen, a game of hide-and-seek in a deserted house and the face and voice of Mrs. Baines in a jealous rage. The close-up of her face is terrifying, the way the face of an angry adult appears to a child.



    The one problem I have with this excellent film is the extremely abrupt ending. I can understand the desire not to tie up an unusual story in a neat box, but there is no real ending at all. The important plot details are all addressed, certainly, but then Phillipe, Baines and Julie disappear. The action simply stops. I found it confusing and surprising.

  15. #15
    Senior Member Country: United States torinfan's Avatar
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    The Fallen Idol is a brilliant film, I saw it when I was very young - maybe 8 or 9, the same age as Philippe. I remembered the infamous scene where Baines' wife falls down the stairs, where Philippe runs into the streets, meets up with a policeman (yes, who else, Torin ) and is returned to his mansion-home. I bought the Criterion DVD earlier this year, and it does remain one of my all time favorites.



    I have seen Our Man in Havana, Ernie Kovacs, another favorite of mine.

  16. #16
    Senior Member Country: United States torinfan's Avatar
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    Of course, nowadays a kid like Philippe would be immediately labeled as satanspawn

  17. #17
    Senior Member Country: England Maurice's Avatar
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    Daily Telegraph

    Why I love The Fallen Idol
    by Mark Romanek

    Director Mark Romanek, known for his dark Nine Inch Nails music videos and his recent adaptation of NEVER LET ME GO, explains why he loves Carol Reed's underrated classic:

    I loved this film from its first five minutes. I'm a point-of-view freak, and I like it when directors are rigorous about it. In the first few scenes, Carol Reed firmly roots the film so we know we're going to see everything through this boy's eyes.

    I was also immediately hooked by Bobby Henrey's performance as the boy, Phillipe - even to this day, its naturalism is unparalleled. I think it's the great unpolished child performance of all time.

    What it brings to the film is an authenticity. You just believe what you're seeing, you don't feel as if he's some kid with an agent and a head shot. The behaviour seems so unaffected.

    The film was especially ahead of its time to have this sort of performance, and it probably affected the adult actors' work. Ralph Richardson's performance (as the butler Baines) is exemplary of the understatement that you see throughout the film. Yet there's a real wit and intelligence there.

    It's not quite as showy as the other more famous Carol Reed films (THE THIRD MAN, ODD MAN OUT) but there's the same kind of bravura craftsmanship. It's a slightly more transparent performance by the director: he suffuses the whole production with this kind of subtlety, but it's not boring in any way.

    I have such an affinity for the film, I just watch it over and over again. I can't find fault with it.

    I think it's a film-maker's film, but you don't hear it being talked about a lot. I often mention it to film director friends or people who love cinema, and they've never seen it.

    THE THIRD MAN did eclipse it and that's a fun film - it's more ambitious and probably greater - but I find THE FALLEN IDOL more modest and more perfect.

    Interview by Daisy Bowie-Sell

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