Welcome back to Weekly Hitch, where I watch most of Hitchcock’s movies in chronological order for a year and then try to make you read about it. Sort of like a school, but you don’t get tested or graded and I don’t know if you’re here.
For this third week, we continue on through Hitch’s early silent films at Gainsborough Studios, with his follow-up picture to The Lodger – a melodrama about the dangers of women and honesty, and Hitchcock’s fourth film; 1927’s Downhill.
Downhill (retitled When Boys Leave Home in America) is a tragic and moralistic drama that tells the tale of young Roddy Berwick (played by The Lodger‘s Ivor Novello, upon whose play the film is also based) – a chipper and sporty young chap of about 17, I think, who goes to school, is good at sports, and has lots of friends. His father is stern but proud and all is right in the world.
Until, that it, Roddy and his best pal Tim start hanging out with a local shopgirl who ends up “in the family way” and tells the school’s headmaster that Roddy is the father! Roddy finds this hilariously impossible at first, but is then shocked when he realizes that the girl is serious – especially because he knows that Tim is the baby-daddy. But Roddy keeps his mouth shut, because Tim is poor and dependant on an upcoming scholarship – also the shock might kill Tim’s dad apparently. So Roddy decides to keep Tim’s secret – take the blame and is subsequently expelled and sent home to his father.
Of course, when Roddy’s super serious dad finds out he kicks Roddy out to the street – and what soon follows is a slow descent for young Roddy into a life of ever-increasing torment. All at the hands of fate and a handful of evil women.
After leaving his family home we find Roddy as a waiter serving tables, but then discover that he’s actually just playing a waiter on the stage in a musical production (in a very enjoyable and clever cinematic trick by Hitch). Roddy is in love with the lead actress in the play, who is a ‘gold-digger’ as you’d say and going with a rich bully of a sort who mocks Roddy. But then good news strikes, and Roddy comes into a huge inheritance! Now 30,000 pounds richer, Roddy gets the girl (who comes with some hefty debts) and marries her – only to find that in a few short months she has burned through all his money, and is cheating on him with the bully. After a fight and some fisticuffs the gold-digging actress kicks Roddy out of his own house and he is once again bereft!
When we next find Roddy is basically a gigolo working in a Paris dance hall – where he grinds up on old ladies for some coin, all while being controlled by his evil lady-pimp. I the darkness of the dance hall, Roddy meets a seemingly nice lady and they have a talk – but once the windows are opened and the harsh light of day streams in, he sees her as the old wreck of a woman she really is (no subtlety here) – and the self-loathing pushes Roddy over the edge. Madness ensues.
Soon Roddy is on a ship, being taken back to London by some folks who think he might be worth a few quid. He has horrible dreams on board – some interesting metaphors and symbolism in there – and zoo returns to London, where the streets lead him back home… now basically a hobo gigolo with no money and an ex-wife. But, in the intervening years, his father has found out the truth – that Roddy wasn’t the father – and takes Roddy back with open arms.
A happy ending for all – presumably until Roddy gets tested for syphilis.
So, what about the film then? I’m glad you asked.
Honestly, it’s pretty good. I had never seen Downhill before, and only knew it was sometimes regarded as a ‘lesser’ Hitchcock, but I think that’s a mistaken categorization. Aside from a terribly obvious and contrived story, rampant misogyny, and some rather dubious twists – the movie is, in my opinion, technically more proficient than The Lodger, and stands as a pretty big leap forward in Hitch’s mastery of direction and just the simple basic language of film. Downhill is, undeniably, a big rung on the ladder Hitchcock was climbing on the way to his later and greater works.
But, let’s also not fool ourselves too much, this is still a rough movie to get through. While Hitch does show a great sense of cinematic inventiveness and thematic awareness (which I wonder if he learned from his struggles recutting The Lodger) – the dream sequences, the dancehall bit, the clever waiter-turn-actor gag all work wonderfully and show a lot of ingenuity – this movie is still a pretty bad tale. But, I think we can, for once, safely put the blame for that on the source material – in the form of a play that star Ivor Novello wrote with his writing partner, Constance Collier.
The biggest problem with Downhill though, is the way it sees women. I mean, even for 1927 – this movie has a mean streak of horrible misogyny, and say what you like about Hitchcock – but he was never one to dislike or begrudge a strong-willed woman. From his mother, to Alma, Hitch loved women – probably to a fetishistic and unhealthy degree (along with his food) – but he loved them. Ivor Novello on the other hand… well, let’s just say that he really saw no need for women, so perhaps the viewpoint that women are the main and only cause of a man’s downfall came not from the director, or his screenwriter Eliot Stannard, but from the source-play and the film’s star.
In the end, Downhill is beautiful to watch – the camerawork is especially impressive compared to Hitchcock’s previous two films, but its innovativeness and clever use of theme and irony still can’t outweigh the story. I would call it a success for Hitchcock, a great foundation for the future, but not among the best of his early work.
Filming on Downhill began in March of 1927, just four months after Hitch and Alma’s wedding – and only a month after Eliot Stannard begun work on the screenplay, and while the production itself would be far smoother than either of Hitchcock’s earlier efforts – lacking the financial worries of The Pleasure Garden or the interference and animosity surrounding The Lodger – Downhill was by no means a walk in the park.
Hitchcock had already announced his forthcoming departure from Gainsborough pictures in favour of British International Pictures and either owed Michael Balcon two more movies or was loaned out to him for two (I’m not precisely sure on that as sources disagree), and following the enormous successor The Lodger, Hitch was in a remarkably enviable position for a film director. He had one of the biggest stars in movies yet again in Ivor Novello, and the technical skill to turn what Hitch had deemed a dreadful play with terrible dialogue into something worthwhile.
Production involved several great and amusing sequences, and clever touches such as tinting the prints a sickly green during Roddy’s sea-voyage home to emphasize his nausea and worry, and also filming at the escalator in the the London underground.
Some interesting thematic elements were heightened in the making of this film – specifically the concept of descent and again, Hitchcock’s staircase featured most prominently – as they would for the rest of his career.
Shooting on Downhill would end up overlapping with Hitch’s next film, Easy Virtue, as Novello’s availability would force him to film some close-ups while Hitchcock was shooting backgrounds for the latter picture – his last for Gainsborough. But while the filming was smooth and seemingly pleasant, some conflict during editing would result in this being the last collaboration between Hitchcock and Ivor Novello.
The release of Downhill saw one rather interesting element added to the initial London screenings, in which at a point in the film the movie would stop and Ivor Novello and his co-star would come out on the stage in person to perform a scene from the play that the film was based on – live with dialog – and then the movie would start up again. A fairly clever and interesting ploy which certainly seems to have the clever touch of Hitchcock behind it – especially given how much of a fan of the theatre he was.
In the end, I can’t say that production was especially dramatic on Downhill, though it certainly resulted in a solid effort. Reviews at the time all seemed to acknowledge Hitchcock’s ability and easy mastery of the medium, while also knocking the film for its poor story – something which Ivor Novello must have taken to heart.
And now we are left to find a place for Downhill among the rest of Hitchcock’s work. Not an easy task in this place. The master himself would discount the film as a lesser effort – more an assignment than a work of his own making, and yet as with most of his early films it is easy to find the latter Hitchcock in his early works.
Take, for example the shot of Ivor Novello coming into the room to see the actress he loves. Hitchcock shoots the entrance from her point of view, looking over the back of a chair and so seeing Ivor upside-down. It’s a clever use of the subjective camera, and is a shot that Hitch would go on to use again nearly 20 years later when Carey Grant enters a room in Notorious.
And more and more I’m starting to see the pattern in all this. For, as Hitchcock would say, “Style is self-plagiarism.” and he meant it. But when I first set out on this project I thought that I’d be looking for traces of the older man in the work of the younger, but in reality I think it might be the opposite. Hitchcock’s early work is laying the foundation for everything he would know – and in years to come we will start to see more of the younger man in the older. And maybe that’s how all art is crafted – built upon the success and lessons of before. Obvious now, perhaps, but the idea that so much of what we would come to think of as “Hitchcockian” a was actually laid down in early films that we would write off as less interesting efforts is fascinating to me. Downhill might be a misogynistic and melodramatic affair – but it is still among the formative DNA strands that make up Hitchcock – and should be, I think, respected as such.
Next week we’ll look at Hitchcock’s silent adaptation of the Noel Coward play Easy Virtue, and his last picture for Gainsborough, as we struggle toward some sound and some intrigue! Until then.