Hitchmania: Downhill (1927)
Downhill is a fable of a man’s descent at the hands of an allegation. It is a pretty straightforward fall from grace story, weaving the conception of an innocent man with a few back-biting female stereotypes for a dated but nevertheless interesting experience. This silent film comes as part of a pretty busy 1927 for Alfred Hitchcock, representing the last picture in a year that included The Lodger, The Ring and The Pleasure Garden. Easy Virtue also screened in 1927.
Downhill is significant for a few reasons. For starters, it features Ivor Novello in the starring role. This is the second and last time Novello and Hitchcock would pair up, following up the coupling in The Lodger with a film that has some similar themes but is without question the lesser movie. Both films traffic in themes of danger and innocence, but Downhill sputters.
Novello stars as the well-bred Roddy Berwick, a captain of his school and a rugby player. He’s a good old boy. One day, Roddy and his pal Tim (Robin Irvine) hang out with Mabel (Annette Benson). For one reason or another, Mabel tells the headmaster at Roddy and Tim’s school that she’s pregnant. She’s lying, although we aren’t fully sure why. It may have something to do with some shenanigans at her “Bunne Shoppe.”
In any case, Mabel’s levelling of the accusation at Roddy causes the good old boy’s expulsion. He returns home to his wealthy parents in disgrace, but flees after his stern father (Norman McKinnel) calls him a liar. This sets young Roddy on a path to destruction of sorts. He has to work as a waiter in a theatre. He marries an actress (Isabel Jeans). He even becomes a Parisian gigolo. Can Roddy ever be redeemed?
Downhill finds Hitchcock “on loan” to Gainsborough Pictures, the studio he left after completing The Lodger. It was thought that the combination of Hitchcock and Novello would spark another winner, so the play written by the actor and Constance Coller (under the name David L’Estrange) turned out to be the ticket.
It’s hard to really say much of quality about Downhill. Hitch does put some interesting ideas in play, like the shots of long hallways at the boys’ school or the use of the curtain in the Bunne Shoppe as a sort of barricade to lewdness. There’s also a neat wide shot that expresses the distance and despair Roddy feels as he finally leaves the school after expulsion.
Almost every female character in Downhill is an unadulterated disaster. They are mostly dismissed as dark-eyed swindlers, with Mabel a candy shop floozy and Julia a two-timer more than willing to share the sheets with her leading man (Ian Hunter). Only Roddy’s mother (Lilian Braithwaite) seems to have earned some semblance of decency.
Because of these problems, Downhill is sometimes considered Hitchcock’s most misogynistic film. That may or may not be the case, but problems clearly lie with the screenplay. Eliot Stannard adapted the Novello/Coller play. There has been conjecture that the homosexual Novello felt “oppressed” by “unwanted female attention” during his time as a matinee idol.
Whether or not Hitch’s movie provides a channel for Novello’s feelings of subjugation is hard to say. We can only guess. As a complete film, Downhill is second-rate. It’s a bumpy, largely insipid piece of work that sheds some light (even nauseating green light at times) on what’s down the road for the iconic director.