DOWNHILL (1927): “My poor boy, how did you come down to — this?”

DOWNHILL (1927) – Gainsborough Pictures – ★★

B&W – Silent – 105 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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.”

One of many visual representations of the film’s title.

 

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.

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