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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THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927): “Be careful, I’ll get you yet.”

THE LODGER:  A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927) – Gainsborough Pictures – ★★★

B&W – Silent – 91 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Ivor Novello (The Lodger), June Tripp (Daisy Bunting), Malcolm Keen (Joe Chandler), Marie Ault (the Landlady), Arthur Chesney (Her Husband).

Screenplay by Eliot Stannard, from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Cinematography by Gaetano di Ventimiglia

Edited by Ivor Montagu

The birth of the Hitchcock story:  Alfred Hitchcock had directed two movies by the time he took on The Lodger, but they were movies that were assigned to him, and rather pedestrian affairs by his own admission.  This movie would be different; the subject matter piqued his interest, and inspired his creativity.  As he told Francois Truffaut,  “The Lodger was the first true Hitchcock movie.”

The movie opens on a woman’s scream, in close-up, followed by a flash of neon signs advertising “TO-NIGHT GOLDEN CURLS.”  And we soon discover that this golden-haired woman has been murdered, and she is not the first. This particular killer favors fair-haired women.  He also leaves a calling card of sorts, pinning a slip of paper on his victims which says “The Avenger.” A woman who saw the murderer describes him as having his lower face covered with a scarf.  We then meet a young woman named Daisy who is described as a “mannequin” in the credits;  today we would call her a fashion model.   Her home will be the center of the movie’s action.  In that home we meet her aging parents, and a family friend named Joe, who is a policeman, and very fond of Daisy.  Daisy’s parents are advertising a room to let, and soon enough a knock comes on the door, and we meet Ivor Novello in the title role.  His entrance, appearing out of the London fog, lower face covered with a scarf, is unnerving to say the least.   His offer of cash up front for the room is too much to pass up, but his strange behavior begins to manifest itself soon enough.

The arrival of the lodger. The expressionistic visuals show the influence of Hitchcock’s time at Germany’s UFA studio.

One way this film differs from most later Hitchcock films is the manner in which he keeps the motives of the lodger hidden from the viewer for most of the film.  We are left to ask the question:  Is he the Avenger or isn’t he?  To a point, this is more in the style of a “whodunit”, a type of film that Hitchcock wasn’t fond of.  In future films he would clue us into his protagonist’s innocence from the beginning, which makes the viewer both sympathize and root for him.  In this film, we do eventually learn that the lodger is not the Avenger, but rather the brother of one of the Avenger’s victims, seeking him out to exact revenge.  Joe, Daisy’s policeman beau, does not believe it however, and attempts to arrest the lodger as the murderer. The lodger, handcuffed, flees into the night.  Does Joe really believe the lodger is guilty, or is he simply jealous because the lodger is now receiving the attention, and affection of Daisy?

The birth of the Hitchcock style:  Alfred Hitchcock employed a few visual flourishes in this movie;  we can see him beginning to flex his creative muscle.  One of the most innovative shots features the lodger upstairs pacing in his room, while the family are downstairs.  Hitchcock shot a POV shot looking up at the ceiling, and has Ivor Novello pacing on a sheet of glass, so we can see his feet going back and forth.  As Hitchcock himself explains, the shot was born of necessity;  in the sound era, he could have used the noise of footfalls to achieve the same effect.

In this shot, we can see through the ceiling as the lodger paces.

Later on Hitchcock employs a very creative shot on a stairwell.  Hitchcock employs stairs in a majority of his films; as a matter of fact, his directorial debut opens with young women going down a spiral staircase.   In The Lodger, as Ivor Novello’s character is slowly sneaking out of the house in the night, we get an overhead shot of his hand slowly sliding along the banister as he descends.  This shot foreshadows overhead POV stair shots that will feature prominently in both Vertigo and Psycho.

Hitchcock’s visual fascination with stairs is on display in this overhead shot of the lodger’s hand sliding down the banister.

Another nice visual touch involves the use of religious imagery.  At one point as the lodger is staring out a window, the windowpanes cast a cross-like shadow right onto the lodger’s face.  At the film’s climax the lodger is being chased by a mob, who all believe him to be the Avenger.  The police learn that the lodger is innocent, and rush to save him from the mob.  The lodger attempts to climb a fence, and his handcuffs get hung up on one of the wrought-iron fenceposts.  As he hangs there by his handcuffs, while being assailed by the mob from above and below, he is reminiscent of Christ on the cross.  When he is finally delivered into the hands of his rescuers, who include the adoring Daisy, the pose resembles that of a Pieta.   Truffaut asks Hitchcock if his evocation of Christ was deliberate, and Hitchcock replies “Naturally, that thought did occur to me.”

You can see in these images how Hitchcock’s staging and framing of Ivor Novello at the end of The Lodger resemble the Pieta.   So this is the first of a handful of films in which the Catholic Hitchcock  will deliberately use religious imagery.

Hitchcock in the silent era:  For those who haven’t watched a lot of silent films, it can feel a bit strange at first.  First of all, one has to read title cards, although you will notice that Hitchcock is so adept at telling the story visually, he utilizes a bare minimum of cards.  Second, there is the idea of a musical score.  When people went to see this movie in the theater in 1927, there was no written musical score.  So either a pianist would improvise live accompaniment, or there would have been no music at all.  There are a number of different scores that have been written to accompany this movie, but they have no connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s original concept of the movie.  An interesting experiment is to watch the movie with two different scores, to see how the music can change your perception of what you are viewing.   Or to watch the movie with no score at all.  Finally, there is the idea of film tinting.  In the silent era, color could be added to movies by adding dye to the negative, producing a colored tint.   You will notice on the restored version of this film, that the exterior night scenes have a bluish tint, and the interior scenes have an amber or yellowish tint.  This is part of Hitchcock’s original visual concept of the film, something he may have first seen in the films of D.W. Griffith, who Hitch claims as a major influence.

The “birth” of Hitchcock?  Since Alfred Hitchcock himself says that this is his first movie to have a clearly defined Hitchcock style, it is worth recounting all of the Hitchcock touches that are seen here for the first time.  The Lodger has: the first Hitchcock cameo, the first German expressionistic imagery, the first innocent man falsely accused of a crime, the first handcuffs, the first sinister staircase, and the first religious imagery.

Source material:  The screenplay for this movie is based upon the novel of the same name, by Marie Belloc Lowndes.  This novel is still a suspenseful read today, although laced with the occasional archaic or obsolete turn of phrase (after all, it is over 100 years old).  The novel differs in some significant ways from the film.  In the novel. the titular lodger has a form of religious mania.  He is frequently sequestered in his room, “studying” the Bible, and reading aloud from it.  But he seems to favor passages that refer to women as sinners, who will have God’s vengeance visited on them.  In the novel, it turns out that the lodger is indeed the murderer of the women, and ultimately he flees the house, and is not caught.  His backstory does come out however, and we learn that he is an escaped mental patient, who murdered several people many years before.  Perhaps more interestingly, the landlady has suspicions about the lodger from very early on, and yet tells no one, making her complicit in his guilt.  The concept of inherited or shared guilt is one that fascinated Hitchcock, and was an idea he would employ frequently.

Hitchcock wanted the lodger to be guilty in the film version, as well.  But the studio would not allow that.  Ivor Novello was arguably the most popular matinee idol in England at the time, and it was inconceivable that he could be a serial killer!  The the screenplay was adapted to make him an innocent man accused of the crimes.

Performance:  It is challenging to discuss performance in silent films.  Acting requirements were very different.  I can see why Ivor Novello was so popular, he does have a commanding screen presence.  But he overdoes it in the early scenes when the audience does not yet know whether he is or is not the Avenger.  He is playing it a little too sinister.  Yet at the climax, when his life is at stake, his vulnerability and fear are very real.  The other performances are all fine, nobody particularly stands out for reasons good or bad.  It is worth pointing out that the Landlady’s husband, played by Arthur Chesney, is the brother of Edmund Gwenn, who Hitchcock would work with a few times.  See if you can spot the similarity.

Recurring players:  Ivor Novello would also star in Hitchcock’s next film, Downhill.   Malcolm Keen had earlier appeared in the lost Hitchcock film The Mountain Eagle, and would later appear in The Manxman.

Where’s Hitch?  This is the movie that gives birth to the Hitchcock cameo.  And Hitchcock claims that it was born of necessity, not any desire to be on screen.  He needed somebody to sit at a desk with back to camera, for one brief scene, and decided to do so himself.   He can be seen just after the 5:30 mark, as a newspaper editor, with his back to the camera.  Some people believe he can be seen in the mob that assails the Lodger at the end of the film, but I don’t think it’s him.

Where’s Mrs. Hitch?  That’s right, Hitchcock’s soon-to-be wife and greatest adviser, Alma Reville, has a cameo in The Lodger.  Her cameo appears in the opening sequence, very close to her husband’s.  She is shown in close-up, with a wireless headset on.

What Hitch said:   Alfred Hitchcock speaks well of this movie, and stresses that it did play a significant role in his development as a director.  He said to Truffaut:

The Lodger is the first picture possibly influenced by my period in Germany.  The whole approach to this film was instinctive with me.  It was the first time I exercised my style.  In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture…I took a pure narrative and, for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.”    

This movie gives birth to Hitchcock’s favorite theme, the innocent man falsely accused.  On this topic he said:

“…the theme of the innocent man being accused, I feel, provides the audience with a greater sense of danger.  It’s easier for them to identify with him than with a guilty man on the run.  I always take the audience into account.”

Definitive edition:  The 2017 Criterion blu-ray features the 2012 BFI restoration of the film.  It looks as good as it is ever going to look, especially considering that it is now ninety years old!  Criterion commissioned a brand new musical score for this release by composer Neil Brand.  The blu-ray also features the restored 1927 Hitchcock feature Downhill, an interview with film scholar William Rothman, a video essay by art historian Steven Jacobs, excerpts from audio interviews with Hitchcock by filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich, a radio adaption from 1940, and an interview with Neil Brand on composing for silent film.

MGM released a DVD version in 2009, and while the print of the film is not nearly as good as the one on the Criterion version, it does contain two different musical scores, and some interesting extra features.