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Downhill (1927)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Downhill (1927)
35mm, black and white, silent, 7853 feet
DirectorAlfred Hitchcock
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ScenarioEliot Stannard
From a play byDavid L'Estrange
CinematographyClaude McDonnell

Cast: Ivor Novello (Roddy Berwick); Robin Irvine (Tim Wakeley); Isabel Jeans (Julia Fotheringale); Ian Hunter (Archie); Norman McKinnel (Sir Thomas Berwick)

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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.

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After the critical and commercial success of The Lodger (1926), a follow-up reuniting director Alfred Hitchcock and star Ivor Novello was an attractive proposition, and a convenient vehicle suggested itself in the stage play Down Hill, written by Novello with Constance Collier, under the combined alias David L'Estrange.

Despite a swift and happy resolution, Downhill is one of the darkest of Hitchcock's early films. It is also probably his most persistently misogynist work, with a succession of predatory and manipulative female characters who combine to torment Novello's hapless young hero: the tuck shop girl who falsely accuses Roddy of fathering her child; the selfish and mercenary actress who marries him for his inheritance, then abandons him when she has finished spending it; the vampiric 'Madame' who exploits his penury by hiring him out to dance with her lonely, ageing clients.

At least some of the blame for this parade of monstrous women, however, should be laid at Novello's door, and it's not hard to imagine that the play reflects the experiences of a homosexual matinee idol oppressed by unwanted female attention. Intriguingly, in the absence of a female focus, the camera's fetishistic gaze falls on Novello's suffering. One early scene is particularly revealingly: Roddy, fresh from his heroic achievements on the rugby pitch, is involuntarily seen shirtless by his best friend's sister. Roddy's reaction - grabbing a towel to conceal his naked chest - speaks as much of the actor's sexually ambiguous public persona as it does of Roddy's own character.

While the direction is occasionally clumsy - the pace is uneven, while a seemingly endless shot of a descending escalator is a clumsy symbol for Roddy's downward trajectory - and Hitchcock was characteristically disparaging about the film in later interviews, Downhill is a deceptively rich and often elegant work. The Marseilles boarding house in which Roddy hits rockbottom is lit like a Vermeer painting, and the earlier sequence in which sunlight exposes the sordid inhabitants of a dancehall is impressive, if unpleasant. Most striking is the scene in which the delirious Roddy, on a boat bound for home, sees visions of his father and his past tormentors mocking him. Inspired by his memory of stage lighting, Hitchcock had the sequence tinted a sickly green to express both nausea and mental torment. Many years later, he would employ a similar trick in Vertigo (1956).

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. A most serious charge (2:50)
2. Delirious with despair (7:04)
Production stills
Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)
Hitchcock, Alfred (1899-1980)
Hunter, Ian (1900-1975)
Montagu, Ivor (1904-1984)
Novello, Ivor (1893-1951)
Stannard, Eliot (1888-1944)
Silent Hitchcock
Teen Terrors On Film