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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Downhill (1927)

My notes on Alfred Hitchcock’s silent film Downhill.‘Why, you silly boy. I believe you’re falling in love with me.’

Made just after the success of The Lodger, this reteaming of Alfred Hitchcock and Ivor Novello is much less well-remembered. If The Lodger is where the ‘Hitchcock’ persona really gets going, this is more like a visit by Hitch to the world of Novello, who stars in an adaptation (by Hitchcock’s regular collaborator in the silent days, Eliot Stannard) of a play by Novello and Constance Collier (writing under the camp name Dominic L’Estrange). In essence, it’s a weird Victorian morality tale with the single fillip (picking up the ‘innocent man accused’ theme of The Lodger which became central to Hitchcock’s vision) that, unlike the protagonist of the famously hilarious awful warning saga Eric, or: Little By Little, Novello’s schoolboy hero is initially innocent of the charge levelled against him and goes downhill (we get lots of shots of him on escalators or in lifts) because he’s too noble to sneak on a pal rather than any inherent corruption.

We open at public school, though Novello is plainly too mature to play a quivering schoolboy properly, where high-born Roddy Berwick (Novello) is a rugby hero with a promising future, who goes along with his friend Tim (Robin Irvine) to an encounter with a suggestively inviting shopgirl (Daisy Jackson) and winds up expelled from school when the canny minx accuses him of being the father of her child rather than the scholarship boy Tim (reasoning that Roddy’s wealthy father will pay off more). After that, Roddy is disowned by his posh father (, Notman McKinnel) and falls into bad company, and a quickly-squandered inheritance from an aunt only makes things worse. It seems plain from the subtitles that Novello was being arch in his deployment of melodrama (upon being expelled, Roddy sputters ‘won’t I be able to play for the Old Boys, sir?’ and an expository title reads ‘Downhill – till what was left of him was thrown to the rats of the Marseilles dockside’) and might even have viewed the whole thing as a bit of a hoot, or a thinly-veiled exercise in gay masochism as a nice boy goes to the dogs. Hitchcock, however, does quite a bit with the uncongenial material – at the time, he was under the influence of German Expressionism, and if The Lodger has overtones of shadowy horror, this draws from the likes of The Last Laugh. Murnau was famous for trying not to use inter-titles, and for a theatrical adaptation, this does without the usual boards and boards of transcribed talk: it even helps get round the censors, as the audience have to interpret precisely what crime is being discussed in the expulsion scene (some synopses claim it’s pilfering sweets, which in a matter of speaking it might be) and other long scenes play out with only facial expressions and gestures to convey plot.

Novello has been accused of ham in his degraded scenes, but in silent cinema martyr terms, he’s less of a face-puller than many lauded greats like Emil Jannings. Hitch plays with his box of tricks: subjective camera (whirling around the room to the tempo of an unheard record, lurching downstairs, blurred as Roddy looks at a British bobby, wandering verite-style through London streets to mingle with ordinary folks in 1927), delirious superimpositions (that spinning record – though the DVD I watched unfortunately lacks a score when the film suggests music was planned as integral), prosaic but indicative signage (‘Underground’, ‘Closed’) and cuts to a churning ship’s engine which parallel the grinding Moloch machines of Metropolis. With a few actors who had careers: Isabel Jeans (who gets prominent billing – in a larger type rather than higher up the list), Ian Hunter and a some thespians whose forgotten names remain redolent of the theatre of the period and which I’m bound to use for characters eventually (Lilian Braithwaite, Violet Farebrother, Jerrold Robertshaw). In the end, Roddy makes it home and is reconciled with his father (‘can you ever forgive me, son?’) and even, somehow, gets to play for the Old Boys.

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