An introduction to silent Hitchcock: Downhill

Ivor Novello and Isabel Jeans in Downhill (1927)
Ivor Novello and Isabel Jeans in Downhill (1927)

Welcome back to our silent Hitchcock series. This week we’re looking at Downwhill (1927), hardly one of the director’s most acclaimed films, but one that offers rich, if distasteful, rewards for any Hitchcock aficionado. Dreamy Ivor Novello stars as Roddy, a sixth-former at a private school and thoroughly decent chap who takes the blame for a friend’s misbehaviour and suffers a degrading decline in his fortunes.

Going underground … Downhill (1927)
Going underground … Downhill (1927)

Downhill is clunky in places, and the thirtysomething Novello is one of cinema’s least convincing schoolboys, but the film’s strength lies in its brutal, single-minded nastiness. Cynical, misogynistic and determined to reveal the seediness beneath polite society, Downhill expresses the darkest of Hitchcock’s dark side – all without a single murder. It also gives us an insight into Novello’s psyche too; he co-wrote the play the film was based on, and one can only speculate whether he based it on any of his own experiences.

If you thought The Ring took a graphical idea and ran wild with it, then get a load of Downhill. Roddy’s progress through society, after his expulsion from school, is only going one way and that’s, er, down. You’ll find a lengthy shot of Novello slinking underground on Tube escalator – it’s widely mocked as the clumsiest example of Hitchcock warming to his theme.

C'est la vie … Downhill's French title
C’est la vie … Downhill’s French title

There’s another, more interesting, pattern running through Downhill, though: the reveal. The most celebrated example is introduced by the intertitle “The world of make-believe”: a series of slowly retreating camera placements reframe a shot of Roddy in contradictory ways, forcing the audience to continually shift their interpretation. At first we think he’s a smartly dressed gent. Then a waiter. Then a thief. Finally, the camera pans right to uncover the true extent of Roddy’s social degradation – he’s on stage, an extra in a cheesy musical, bobbing like a chump.

Poor Roddy: such a noble young man, and so unfortunate to meet, and be mistreated by, some of the most grotesquely venal women ever committed to film. Hitchcock’s misogyny is often discussed in relation to his sound films and some possibly apocryphal pranks and fallings-out on set, but Downhill suggests the rot set in a lot earlier than that – in fact, it makes the likes of Vertigo seem positively sensitive. The Farmer’s Wife gets laughs out of silly and unattractive spinsters, but the women of Downhill are almost entirely self-interested monsters. There’s even a spot of casual transphobia (see the clip below).

Ultimately, these crudely drawn villainesses are not just a cause of politically correct 21st-century complaint: they contribute to the structural failure of the film. Downhill is all Roddy, all the time, and virtually everyone else on screen is a mere cipher, which is unsatisfactory all round.

Synopsis: A boy takes the blame for his best friend’s misdeed and is expelled from school. From that point on, his life proceeds on a downward spiral into poverty and degradation. (BFI Screenonline)

Hitchcock moment: Another painful reveal: here’s why sunlight and early-hours drinking dens don’t mix.

Watch out for: A foretaste of Vertigo. No, not that shot, but a splash of sickly green tinting.

Links worth clicking:

Downhill screens in London this summer as part of the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock season.

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