– Summary –
Director : Alfred Hitchcock
Year Of Release : 1927
Principal Cast : Ivor Novello, Robin Irvine, Isabel Jeans, Ian Hunter, Norman McKinnel, Annette Benson, Sybil Rhoda, Lilian Braithwaite, Violet Fairbrother, Ben Webster.
Approx Running Time : 106 Minutes
Synopsis: After being expelled from his Boarding School for taking the blame in getting a girl pregnant, Roddy leaves home to work as an actor, hooks up with a glamorous but unfaithful actress, and ends up being a gigolo.
What we think : While this silent effort from Hitchcock might contain plenty of his signature motifs, the story proves rather tepid (especially compared to his then-recent hit The Lodger) and the film spends an awful amount of time doing… well, very little. From a technical perspective, Downhill remains an enchanting testament to Hitch’s burgeoning skill as a director, but as a work of drama, this one plummets to the bottom rather than roll gracefully down. For fans of Hitch only.
The Thunder from Down Under.
Downhill (US release title: When Boys Leave Home), the 4th silent film from Alfred Hitchcock, sees the master director try a straight-up drama film; this isn’t melodrama in much the same light as The Pleasure Garden, nor is it a thriller in the method of The Lodger, and in my humble opinion is worth a look purely as a curiosity only. In terms of style, Hitch’s typical flourishes are once more on display, although there are a few narrative stumbles and over-played subtextual moments here and there, but if you’re expecting a Psycho-level dramatic work then this probably isn’t the film for you. It’s also worth a look to watch then-superstar Ivor Novello work his charms with the camera – the man is positively too handsome for words, ladies! – and Hitchcock knows how to film him just right. There’s sex appeal aplenty, folks. Yet, for all the positives, Downhill remains merely mediocre; it’s certainly not at Lodger level intensity, and is thankfully a far cry from The Pleasure Garden, landing somewhere in the middle of being good and average (which isn’t a resounding affirmation of the films’ charms).
Plot synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: At an expensive English boarding school for boys, Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello) is School Captain and star rugby player. He and his best friend Tim (Robin Irvine) start seeing a waitress Mabel (Annette Benson). Out of pique, she tells the headmaster that she is pregnant and that Roddy is the father. In fact it was Tim, who cannot afford to be expelled because he needs to win a scholarship to attend Oxford University. Promising Tim that he will never reveal the truth, Roddy accepts expulsion. Returning to his parents’ home, he finds that his father (Norman McKinnel) believes him guilty of the false accusation. Leaving home, Roddy finds work as an actor in a theatre. He marries the leading actress Julia (Isabel Jeans) after inheriting £30,000 from a relation. The unfaithful Julia secretly continues an affair with her leading man (Ian Hunter) and discards Roddy after his inheritance is exhausted. He becomes a gigolo in a Paris music hall but soon quits over self-loathing at romancing older women for money. From there, Roddy’s misadventures continue – will he ever return home to vindication?
Admittedly, the life and times of a spoiled rich kid who finds himself expelled and living a life he’d otherwise not have chosen, probably isn’t the most enticing narrative hook I’ve ever heard of. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: Downhill isn’t a great film by anyone’s standards, leastways from Alfred Hitchcock, and as a silent film I’ve seen better in my relatively limited exposure to them. As I watch more and more, I’ve become accustomed to the specific peculiarities of the genre, and I’ve begun to determine a benchmark level of quality to these films of an era now lost to us. Silent films have never really ever been my forte, but I’ve acclimatised well enough to judge a film of this vintage appropriately (at least I think so!), so I can say with some surety that Downhill is easily one of Hitch’s lesser silent films.
The plot meanders through a lot of exposition for a silent film – the opening school-set sequences seem to drag, especially with Annette Benson’s Mabel trying to hog the limelight as the falsely pregnant catalyst for all this angst. It takes an age to actually get to the meat of the film, the moment Roddy’s father boots him out of home, and by then (at least for this silent cinema newbie) I was already starting to think of watching something else. But as the film moved into its more overt dramatic elements, I was slowly (sloooowly) drawn into Roddy’s plight. Poor rich kid, I kept thinking. If only he’d stood up for himself in the first place, and not taken the rap for getting Mabel up the duff, then perhaps he’d have saved himself all this hassle.
The film’s story is drawn from a play co-written by star Ivor Novello (who previously worked with Hitch as the title character in The Lodger), and as such is pretty much a “look at me” story providing Novello with ample opportunity to make his legion of female fans swoon. Or drool. I’m not sure what the correct term is for 1920’s lusty salivating. Apparently in the theatrical performances, Novello would actually wash his bare legs on stage, no doubt sending his feminine audience into an attack of the vapors – here, Hitch shoots a short moment of Novello without his shirt on, which I assume must have been the ’20’s equivalent of making women orgasm on the spot.
Novello, who is easily one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen, plunders this film from Hitch, overtaking the narrative with many a glamorous glance, sideways look, and radiant charm from that chiseled and perfectly coiffured face. He dominates the film almost from the outset, with the camera all but making sweet sweet love to his face whenever possible; it’s a tough ask for his fellow cast members to stand up under such an onslaught, but the ensemble does well in almost all cases. Early work from Robin Irvine, as the less fortunate “best friend” Tim, as well as the parade of feminine beauty throughout the latter stages of the movie, ensure there’s plenty of nice visages to look at. But it cannot overcome the wiffling story flaws, and as much as Hitch tries to keep the film stylish and in keeping with his visual themes, there’s not enough beneath the surface to keep it from just toppling over from time and again.
Hitch’s use of camera, editing and visual cues here is once more exceptional. As a technical exercise, Downhill has plenty of stuff for fans of Hitch to sink their teeth into, with oblique camera angles, soft focus framing and alternative color tinting (designed to represent the mood of the scene, or characters within the scene). Hitch’s typical creative flair is certainly evident, but as a work of drama, I think he’s a little out of his depth. At least, he is in these early days. Watch for plenty of over-the-shoulder deep focus shots during the “gigolo” scenes, some nice dolly work and plenty of “widescreen” interior shots – a shot of Roddy leaving the school during the opening act is particularly evocative, something I don’t think Hitch maintained for the rest of the movie, but in and of itself, these moments certainly set a tone.
Downhill never achieves glory thanks to a dearth of interest in the story, and what I’d describe as an overabundance of star power for Ivor Novello’s charming visage. As mentioned, I think fans of Hitch will find plenty to note in terms of the construction of the film, but as a work of entertainment, even compared to Hitch’s other silent films, it’s just a little bit average.
© 2014 – 2018, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.