Week 3: ‘Downhill’ – 1927

Ivor Novello returns in Hitchcock’s 4th movie, a tale of mistaken guilt (who would have thought it?) and one man’s descent into despair, depravity and delirium. The starting point of the wrongful accusation is Roddy Berwick (Novello) taking the fall for his schoolfriend’s misdemeanor. There seems to be some confusion in different sources over what the offence is, although it seemed pretty clear to me that Mabel had fallen pregnant to one of the guys, (she is the girl from Ye Olde Bunne Shoppe who appears to have acquired one in her own oven…sorry). Many sites mention that it is a theft but this is wrong. Regardless, he is expelled from school and thus embarks on a downhill odyssey into an ever bleakening underworld.

Hitchcock at times overplays the symbolism: as Roddy leaves the family home he goes to the Underground and takes an escalator way, way downwards.

Later he descends in a lift after his sponging girlfriend, then wife, Julia Fotheringay (played by Isabel Jeans, blonde) proceeds to chew through the £30,000 he has inherited by his Godmother by blowing it on jewellery and still carrying on with her previous fella (Archie, played by Ian Hunter). By the by, Hitchcock does a neat little thing with the title card that comes up for £30,000 – when it first appears the numbers are big onscreen, and as the fortune dwindles it appears much smaller, a simple little idea but nice.

Hitchcock’s naughty side, as always, pops up with a line of dialogue Archie delivers as he hands Roddy a clump of bills from Julia’s extravagant purchases: ‘they’re yours, my boy – regard them as an entrance fee’ (!)

Roddy is extraordinarily naïve with various scrapes he gets into and it’s worth remembering that at the opening of the movie he is supposed to be a schoolboy of about 17 or 18. Novello was born in 1893 and would have been 34 at the time – youthful looking though he is, it is a bit distracting having him play someone half his age. I guess it was a big factor in raising the finance to have a bankable and proven star as the lead.

There is some really beautifully photography in the film: in fact the whole thing looks pretty great. Highlight scenes/shots include the ‘soda siphon sequence’ about 39 mins in – the syphon in focus HUGE in the foreground, the characters blurred behind. Archie blasts the soda as if to cool the ardor of Roddy and Julia .

There are also three lovely shots @ 48’52” as Roddy and Julia kiss – beautifully lit and composed with a glowing halo of light surrounding the pair of them, anticipating Josef Von Sternberg classics to come. The cinematographer on ‘Downhill’ is Claude L. MacDonnell, who had photographed various movies prior to ‘Downhill’ that involved Hitchcock’s pre-directing work as a writer and title designer. He does a great job and the movie is a treat to watch.

Hitchcock pulls a kind of triple visual trick at the start of Roddy’s descent into the underworld – we see him in black tie and feel good for him, the camera pulls back to reveal he’s actually become a waiter….then pulls back further to reveal he is waiting on tables in a stage show, an even lower occupation than just being a waiter. Following the audacious glass ceiling/floor shot in ‘The Lodger’, Hitch pulls out another one here. As Isabel Jeans leans back on her chair to see Roddy coming into her dressing room we cut to her p.o.v. – and he shoots it upside down! Hitchcock also anticipates the classic Spike Lee ‘camera attached to the actor’s chest’ by 60 years or so as Roddy returns to London in one of the later scenes. You get the feeling he’s looking at every scene/shot and thinking how to inject interest and innovation at every stage. Even in this, not great, movie he’s still pushing it forward.

As with ‘The Pleasure Garden’, and Miles Mander’s portrayal of Levet in that picture, the atmosphere of sinking depravity in “Downhill’ is very well handled. There is obvious religious iconography at times – the triple arched windows in their school study room echoed by the churchlike wardrobes Julia hides her lover in. Roddy progresses in a downward spiral from being a taxi dancer surrounded by a Sodom and Gomorrah-like spectacle as the all-night-closed curtains are finally opened at daybreak (‘searching, relentless sunlight’ as the title tells us), to a full blown alcoholic on the docks at Marseilles (‘thrown to the rats’).  Each time he escapes from one bad situation he tumbles further down into a more bleak circumstance.

He eventually travels back to England in a delirious hallucinatory state – Hitchcock going to town by using blurred images and dissolves to suggest his crazed brain-state. Roddy imagines all the people he has met on his downward slide laughing at him, before being dumped at the docks in England and getting home to receive the redemption he has been searching for from the time of his fall from grace. Hitchcock even uses the actor who plays Roddy’s father (Norman McKinnel, as Sir Thomas Berwick) to appear in other roles (on the ship/as a policeman at the docks) to suggest Roddy’s obsession with being accepted back at home. With a circular structure (and much use of circular motifs – records spinning/portholes/pistons moving etc), Roddy finds himself back on the rugby field at school, scoring a try to great acclaim in the Old Boy’s match.

Miscellaneous notes

The copy of the movie I acquired was easily the most budget looking of all the Hitchcock’s I have – it literally looks like someone burnt it in their bedroom and is on the ‘Video Cellar’ label, whoever they may be. However, even on this – relatively scratch and dirt free transfer – the quality of the visuals still shines through. It’s an enjoyable watch, if a minor movie in Hitchcock’s grand oeuvre.

There’s that big old staircase again – the scenes in his parents’ home this time.

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