Principal cast: Ivor Novello (Roddy Berwick), Robin Irvine (Tim Wakely), Isabel Jeans (Julia Fotheringale), Norman McKinnel (Sir Thomas Berwick), Lillian Braithwaite (Lady Berwick).
Screenplay by Eliot Stannard based on the play by Constance Collier and Ivor Novello
Cinematography by Claude L. McDonnell
Edited by Ivor Montagu and Lionel Rich
The follow-up to Hitch’s first hit: Downhill was Alfred Hitchcock’s follow-up to The Lodger, which was Hitchcock’s third directorial effort, and first box office hit. This follow-up is very different in subject matter and tone. The story is divided into three sections. In the first, “the world of youth”, we are introduced to two college companions, Roddy Berwick (played by matinee idol Ivor Novello) and Tim Wakely (Robin Irvine). Roddy is on top of the world. He is a good student, a star player for the school rugby team, and comes from a wealthy family. His friend Tim is at school on scholarship. We see the two friends at play, and soon we are introduced to Tim’s girlfriend. Shortly after this, the two boys are summoned to the headmaster’s office. There, Tim’s girlfriend alleges that Roddy has taken advantage of her. It is never spelled out, but the implication is that she is pregnant, and that Roddy is the father. Tim is the true father, but she accuses Roddy because she knows he comes from wealth. Rather than speak the truth, Roddy takes the blame for his friend. He is then kicked out of school, and kicked out his home.
The second section “the world of make believe” finds Roddy a chorus line actor in a music hall. He becomes smitten by the lead actress, who is currently dating her co-star. She is amused by his attention, but does nothing about it. Shortly after this, Roddy inherits some money from an aunt, and upon hearing this the actress leaves the man she is with, to be with Roddy. They end up getting married, and she shortly spends every last penny of his inheritance, while seeing her old beau on the side the whole time. He gets kicked out of his own house, because he signed it over to her!
In the final section “the world of lost illusions”, Roddy is in Paris, dancing with unpartnered women. He is essentially a gigolo, and his lady boss encourages him to do more than just dance with the women. Ultimately he is sick, upon the verge of death, and ends up back in England. He returns home, only to be welcomed by his parents. He even gets to play in the school rugby game.
If the story sounds trite, that’s because it is. This movie has many problems, chief among them the overlong running time. One hour and 45 minutes is a bit much for a silent melodrama. It is also hard to feel any real sympathy for Roddy. Is it admirable for him to keep his mouth shut when he is accused of doing something he didn’t? It costs him everything he has. And later, when he throws all his money away on the actress, we can all see she is only interested in the cash. Why can’t he? The only thing that makes this movie worthy of at least one viewing is to watch Hitchcock continue to grow in confidence and skill as a filmmaker.
The Hitchcock touch continues: While the story is not great, there are many wonderful visual touches. In the first section, when Roddy is called to the school headmaster’s office, there is a great POV tracking shot, as Roddy slowly approaches the older man’s desk. It feels as if he is slowly, inexorably moving to meet his fate. We don’t even know why he has been called in, but the camera work fills us with a sense of dread.
The second section of the film begins with a wonderful touch, where Hitchcock subverts our expectations. We first see Roddy serving a couple at a table, leading us to believe he is a waiter. When the couple leaves the table, the woman forgets her cigarette case, which Roddy quickly pockets. Oh no, so he’a a thief too. The as the camera pulls back farther, we see that all this action has taken place on a stage, and he in an actor.
The last section also has a wonderful visual touch. Hitchcock describes it this way: “I showed a woman seducing a younger man. She is a lady of a certain age, but very elegant, and he finds her very attractive until daybreak. Then he opens the window and the sun comes in, lighting up the woman’s face. In that moment she looks dreadful.” Finally, when Roddy is on a boat returning him to England, he is delirious, and has visions of all the women who have taken advantage of him, sitting together, laughing at him. Hitchcock shoots Roddy’s visions as if they were real, not with blurred or fading images as would normally be done to indicate we are watching a hallucination.
There are also many visual cues that highlight the film’s title. We see Roddy going down stairs and down escalators. Hitchcock called this “…another naive touch that I wouldn’t do today.”
Source material: Eliot Stannard’s screenplay is based upon a stage play co-written by Constance Collier and the film’s star Ivor Novello, under the combined pseudonym David L’Estrange. I have been unable to find a copy of the play in any form, for purposes of comparison. There aren’t even that many references to the play at all, other than that it provided the source material for the movie. I was beginning to doubt this play was ever written, let alone performed, but I was finally able to confirm that it debuted at the Queens Theatre in London on June 16, 1926. Hitchcock does say of it that “…it was done as a series of sketches. It was a rather poor play.” Constance Collier would appear in Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope as Mrs. Atwater.
Performance: It is hard to judge these performances, when the standards of acting were different in the silent era. Ivor Novello was too earnest, and far too old be playing a college student. The other performances are all adequate, considering the material.
Recurring players: Ivor Novello had just starred in The Lodger. Robin Irvine would next appear in Easy Virtue, Isabel Jeans would also be in Easy Virtue and Suspicion, Ian Hunter would also be in both The Ring and Easy Virtue, Violet Farebrother would later be in Easy Virtue and Murder! Ben Webster would later have an uncredited part in Suspicion, Hannah Jones would later appear in Champagne, Blackmail, Murder! and Rich and Strange.
Where’s Hitch? He isn’t. Hitchcock made only a couple of cameos in his silent films, it was not yet a tradition this early in his career.
What Hitch said: Alfred Hitchcock had very little to say about this film over the course of his life. The discussion of Downhill in the Truffaut book is less than one page in length. He described a couple scenes that he was proud of (see above) and then moved on.
Definitive edition: The 2017 Criterion blu-ray release of Hitchcock’s The Lodger contains Downhill in its entirety. This is the 2012 version restored by the BFI. The restoration is good, considering the film is 90 years old. It is accompanied by a new piano score from British film composer Neil Brand. There are no extra features associated with the movie; it is itself an extra feature on the Lodger blu-ray.
Principal cast: James Stewart (Rupert Cadell), Farley Granger (Phillip Morgan), John Dall (Brandon Shaw), Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. Kentley), Constance Collier (Mrs. Atwater), Joan Chandler (Janet Walker), Edith Evanson (Mrs. Wilson), Douglas Dick (Kenneth Lawrence).
Written by Hume Cronyn (treatment), Arthur Laurents (screenplay)
Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Edited by: William H. Ziegler
On May 7, 1947 Alfred Hitchcock wrapped production on The Paradine Case, bringing to a close his nearly eight year affiliation with David O. Selznick. Although the Selznick/Hitchcock period began rather auspiciously with Rebeccain 1940, it was drawing to an unsatisfying close. Cast and crew alike seemed to sense that The Paradine Casewas doomed to failure. But Hitchcock himself seemed little phased. As at other points of his career when he was making what he felt to be a substandard picture (e.g. Waltzes From Vienna, Jamaica Inn) his mind was already on his next project.
And that project was titled Rope, and would be the first film made by Transatlantic Picures, a production company founded by Hitchcock and partner Sidney Bernstein. Transatlantic Pictures made a deal with Warner Brothers for distribution, beginning an association between Hitchcock and Warners that would last for several years.
Ropeis an unconventional film, both in story and in structure. It begins with two young men murdering their friend, just for the thrill of it. They then place his body in a trunk, and proceed to host a dinner party, serving the food from the very trunk which holds the body. The party guests are all intimately related to the young victim as well, including his father, his aunt, his girlfriend, and his best friend. The most interesting guest however is Rupert Cadell, former prep-school housemaster of the murderers and the victim. Over the course of the evening, he suspects that something is awry, and will ultimately figure out exactly what happened.
Continuous action: Perhaps it is best to let Hitchcock himself describe the manner in which Ropewas filmed:
I wanted to do a picture with no time lapses – a picture in which the camera never stops… As I see it, there’s nothing like continuous action to sustain the mood of actors, particularly in a suspense story. In Rope the entire action takes place between the setting of the sun and the hour of darkness. There are a murder, a party, mounting tension, detailed psychological characterizations, the gradual discovery of the crime and the solution. Yet all this consumes less than two hours of real life as well as ‘reel’ life.
So Ropeis meant to play out in real time, with the 80-minute running time equaling 80 minutes of story time. There are 10 editorial cuts in the movie, meaning that the takes average 8 minutes in length. That is a long period of time to film without cutting. Imagine an actor flubbing his line, or a technical mistake, at the seven-minute mark. That meant resetting to the beginning of the sequence and starting over. Here is Hitch again:
Ropewas a miracle of cueing. Everybody; actors, cameramen, the prop crew, the electricians, the script supervisors, spent two solid weeks of rehearsals before a camera turned. Even before the set was built I worked out each movement on a blackboard in my home…Whole walls of the apartment had to slide away to allow the camera to follow the actors through narrow doors, then swing back noiselessly to show a solid room…Tables and chairs had to be pulled away by prop men, then set in place again by the time the camera returned to its original position…But the most magical of all the devices was the cyclorama – an exact miniature reproduction of nearly 35 miles of New York skyline lighted by 8,000 incandescent bulbs and 200 neon signs…On film the miniature looks exactly like Manhattan at night as it would appear from the window of an apartment at 54th Street and First Avenue.
In the above picture, you can view the cyclorama in the background. The clouds, made of spun glass, would “move” across the cyclorama as the action progressed. And as the late afternoon turned to evening, the sky would darken, and the lights in the buildings would turn on.
Now here is the same cyclorama seen from a more close-up angle, and later in the evening.
Source material: The movie is based upon the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, which in turn was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case. (Leopold and Loeb were two University of Chicago students who murdered a fourteen year old boy to demonstrate their “intellectual superiority” in pulling off the perfect crime. They were caught and sentenced to life in prison.) Arthur Laurents’ screenplay follows the structure of the play fairly closely, with a couple of minor changes. The setting is moved from London to New York. In the play, it is a blue theatre ticket that provides the final clue for Rupert Cadell to solve the crime; in the movie it is the victim’s hat, which is given to Rupert by accident, that serves as a clue.
Overall the dialogue of Laurents’ screenplay is better than the original play, but there is some delicious dialogue in the play that didn’t make it to the movie including a great self-referential moment, as the denouement approaches, when the character of Rupert says “It is the hour when jaded London theatre audiences are settling down in the darkness to the last acts of plays” which is of course exactly what the very audience listening to this dialogue was doing! But Arthur Laurents creates his own referential joke in his screenplay. When Mrs. Atwater and Janet (played by Constance Collier and Joan Chandler) are discussing movies, Mrs. Atwater is swooning over Cary Grant. She says “He was thrilling in that new thing with Bergman. What was it called now? The ‘something of the something’? No, it was just plain ‘something'”. This is, of course, a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s own film Notorious, which had been a hit two years earlier, in 1946. Hitchcock must have appreciated the in-joke.
Hitchcock and homosexuality: There are several Hitchcock films that have homosexual undertones, but nowhere is the theme more prevalent than in Rope. Leopold and Loeb, the actual killers that inspired the story, were in a relationship. And that relationship remains intact in the Patrick Hamilton play. So it is only natural that it would be carried over to the screen version as well. Of course gay themes were strictly taboo in 1948 Hollywood, so they had to be implied through subtleties of screenplay and acting. It probably helped that the movie’s screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, was gay. The two actors who played the homosexual killers, Farley Granger and John Dall, were gay as well. As a matter of fact, Laurents and Granger were in a relationship at the time the movie was in production. Granger had this to say in his autobiography: “John Dall and I discussed the subtext of our scenes together. We knew that Hitch knew what he was doing and had built sexual ambiguity into his presentation of the material.” Watch the early scenes between Dall and Granger, watch how close they get to one another, listen to the tone of Granger’s voice. The relationship is hiding in plain sight. When Phillip asks Brandon “How did you feel, during it?” He is asking about the murder, but the viewer can imagine that same query in an entirely different scenario. Later, when Brandon (played by John Dall), is describing Phillip (Farley Granger) strangling chickens, Phillip vehemently denies ever strangling a chicken. There are layers to the guilt here. Phillip feels guilty because he has recently strangled a person, but the phrase “choking the chicken” also has another entirely different connotation. This entwining of guilt that Phillip feels, his double secret ( he is a murderer, and he is gay), continues throughout the film.
Performance: There are only eight characters in the film (nine if you count David Kentley, but he is killed in the first minute). I’ve already discussed the good performances of John Dall and Farley Granger. Everyone else is solid in this as well. Cedrick Hardwicke and Constance Collier, two veterans of the stage, are clearly in their element in this film involving long takes. Joan Chandler, Douglas Dick, and Edith Evanson are well cast too. But the biggest surprise here is Jimmy Stewart. Stewart later admitted that he was miscast in this role, but his performance is very good. In the original stage play, the character of Rupert Cadell was the boys’ housemaster at school, and he exposed them to the idea of intellectually superior beings, who could kill “lesser” people with impunity. But he also “taught” them something else as well; for in the play, Rupert is gay as well, and probably was involved with both young men at some point. Well there was no way Jimmy Stewart was going to play a gay character; even an implied homosexual element was out of the question. So Jimmy played it straight. His character works like a detective, sensing something strange about this dinner party from the very beginning, then gathering evidence until the final scene, when he uncovers the truth and summons the police.
Hitchcock and color: Ropewas shot in Technicolor, the first color movie in Hitchcock’s career. Hitchcock had some very interesting thoughts on color which are worth sharing. He said:
I never wanted to make a Technicolor picture merely for the sake of using color. I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key…The key role played by color in this film is in the background. I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it…We must bear in mind that, fundamentally, there’s no such thing as color; in fact, there’s no such thing as a face, because until the light hits it, it is nonexistent. After all, one of the first things I learned in the School of Art was that there is no such thing as a line; there’s only the light and the shade.
Theatrical trailer: Throughout the course of his career, Alfred Hitchcock had many unique and innovative trailers made for his movies. The trailer for Rope is one of the most interesting. It begins with a scene featuring the characters David Kentley and Janet Walker, sitting on a bench in Central Park. David is killed in the very first moment of the film, and has no dialogue (other than a scream). And yet here he is, conversing with Janet in a scene that could function as a prologue to the film! The trailer is narrated by Jimmy Stewart, and can be viewed here. (Please note: All rights to this film are owned by Universal Pictures.)
Recurring players: James Stewart would later appear in Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Muchremake, and Vertigo. Farley Granger would reunite with Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train. Cedric Hardwicke also appeared in Suspicion. And Edith Evanson would appear in Marniealmost 20 years later.
Where’s Hitch? One could say that Hitchcock has two cameos in this movie. Since the action all takes place in one apartment, he first decided to insert himself by creating a neon sign of his famous profile, which is visible out the window at about the 55 minute mark. The profile is difficult to recognize on a small screen, and the word that appears underneath it in neon is pretty much impossible to see. And that word is “Reduco”, the weight-loss aid that was the basis of Hitchcock’s cameo inLifeboat. (So the neon sign is an advertisement, justifying its appearance on the New York skyline.) Perhaps because it was so hard to spot, or so unconventional, Hitchcock shot a more straightforward cameo; he can be seen walking down the street from left to right with an unknown woman at about 1:58, just after his director credit fades.
Look closely! There is Hitch’s profile, over the word “Reduco”.
What the actors said: In his autobiography, Farley Granger said that “Rope was an interesting technical experiment that I was lucky and happy to be a part of, but I don’t think it was one of Hitchcock’s better films.”
Jimmy Stewart said that “Rope wasn’t my favorite picture”, and observed that the film was “nothing more than an experiment.” However, he followed that by saying “I’m glad I did it, and I’ll go on record as saying I’ll make a picture for Alfred Hitchcock anytime.”
Hume Cronyn, who appeared as an actor in two Hitchcock films, wrote the original story treatment for Rope with Hitch. Here is what Hume had to say in his autobiography about writing with Hitchcock:
When Hitch found a story he liked, he enjoyed talking about it. He would spin the tale and dwell lovingly on its climaxes, its surprises, and how the camera would enhance these. I can see him now, seated, waving his thick, stubby-fingered hands about, simulating the camera movements…He thought in images…Hitch and I would sit in the garden of his Bel Air house, talk, discuss and argue; then I would go back to North Rockingham Avenue and put it all down on paper. We did not meet every day; I was too busy scribbling for that. When we did meet, there were certain hazards to be avoided; one of the most severe was that I should not get drunk. Hitch was a great believer in a relaxed approach to work and before lunch the wine bottle would appear and he would decant on the vineyard, the vintage, and the nature of the grape as he poured and poured again.
What Hitch said: Hitchcock had the same reservations about this film as his actors did, saying “I undertook Ropeas a stunt, that’s the only way I can describe it…As an experiment, Ropemay be forgiven.” Not a very ringing endorsement. Perhaps the most significant thing he said is in reference to the technical aspects of the production: “…technique is merely a means to an end and the audience must never be aware the camera, the director, or the photographer is performing miracles. Everything must flow smoothly and naturally.”
Definitive edition: The 2012 blu-ray release of Rope, from Universal, is the best available sound and picture quality for this movie. The print is very clean, although the colors occasionally look washed or faded. Extra features include a 32-minute documentary titled Rope Unleashed, which features interviews with Farley Granger and screenwriter Arthur Laurents. Also included are production photos, and the original theatrical trailer.