[This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. Be sure to donate!]
Downhill was Alfred Hitchcock's fourth silent film, made at a time when he was still mostly making melodramas rather than thrillers. This is an especially overcooked and pedestrian melodrama, the story of the student Roddy (Ivor Novello), who's expelled from school after taking the blame for his friend Tim's (Robin Irvine) bad behavior. The story is fairly ridiculous and over-the-top, taking this ordinary young man and suggesting that he's descending into ruin and vice because of a simple misunderstanding. Seen now, it comes across as hopelessly old-fashioned, but one suspects that this moralistic story, derived from a stage play co-written by Novello and Constance Collier, wasn't exactly modern even when the film first came out.
The incident that propels Roddy into his "downhill" journey involves Roddy and Tim's dual flirtation with a shop girl (Annette Benson), who they both dance with one day, each of them jealous of the other over the girl. She dances with both of the boys in the shadowy back room, their romantic silhouettes overlaid with barred shadows from the beaded curtains. She finally settles on Tim, but when she gets in an implicitly unspoken but nonetheless obvious sort of trouble after their dalliance, it's Roddy, who comes from a wealthy family, on whom she pins the blame. (Of course, maybe it's not so obvious, since most descriptions of the film say that Roddy is accused of theft, not of getting the girl pregnant.) Hitchcock is able to leave it all ambiguous and unspoken because he hardly uses any title cards, even as the characters talk and talk; the scene where the girl accuses Roddy plays out with very few words, her accusation mostly communicated by a sequence in which her angry closeup is superimposed over images from the night that both boys spent with her. Hitchcock includes a shot of Roddy passing her a bill, which had been innocent in context, earlier in the film, but here, especially without any dialogue, it makes the whole thing seem like a sordid transaction.
Roddy gets kicked out of school as a result of this scandal, and he takes it badly; "won't I be able to play for the Old Boys, sir?," he moans, in an unintentionally hilarious intertitle. Novello, a good fifteen years too old for the part, only makes the whole thing even more laughable, especially in the earlier scenes where he and Tim don their swirled schoolboy caps and prance around like the world's most overgrown youngsters. After his departure, Roddy finds no comfort at home and sets out to make his own way in the world, descending away from home and school on an escalator that literalizes his fall.
He soon falls in with a theater troupe, though Hitchcock cleverly holds back this piece of information with a closeup that first makes it seem as if Roddy has landed on his feet as a man of society, then pulls back to reveal that he's a waiter, then reveals that after all he's just playing a waiter in a performance. He's part of the theater troupe of the couple Archie (Ian Hunter) and Julia (Isabel Jeans), though he obviously has his own designs on the waifish actress. He hangs around with her in full view of her other lover, never quite making headway with the other man around. In one of the cleverest scenes, Roddy and Julia are about to kiss, seemingly alone for once, when she stops him with a wry glance to the side, and Hitchcock cuts away to a chair, turned away from the camera, the smoke wafting over the top of it the only sign that the other man is sitting there. When an unexpected inheritance makes Roddy briefly rich, though, it's a whole other story, and Archie all but pushes Julia at the boy now, handing him a stack of bills and saying, "they're yours, dear boy, regard them as an entrance fee," followed by a sidelong glance over at the girl, as though the double entendre wasn't obvious or naughty enough already.
Roddy pays his "entrance fee" — another sexual transaction — and marries the girl, and presumably gains entrance, but he's not the only one, as evidenced by a comic scene in which Roddy goes searching for his new wife's lover in a closet, peeking in one door while the other man peeks his head out of another. Roddy's fallen even further now, and Hitchcock makes sure to emphasize him pressing the "down" button in the elevator as he leaves his wife. He then dances for money with dowdy old women in a Parisian nightclub — "the world of lost illusions," a title card dramatically announces — and eventually winds up, ill and crazed, in a rundown wharfside bar.
Along the way, Hitchcock composes some striking, moody images, like a very romantic, shadowy shot of Roddy and Julia embracing and kissing — although, comically, the romantic mood doesn't last very long, as she quickly gets up and begins darting around the room, avoiding her new husband. The film's final act is its best part, as Roddy, having fallen as far as he can, returns home in a zombified daze. He relives his downfall in feverish, fragmented flashes, having nightmare visions of the people who led him to this point and the things he'd done along the way. Hitchcock employs many shaky, wavering point-of-view shots that show the streets of Roddy's hometown as a blur, everything rushing past, images superimposed over one another to show how the whole experience runs together for him.
Despite such moments of technical inventiveness, which Hitchcock always used to enliven and enrich even the weakest of his early films, Downhill is a pretty dull, old-fashioned melodrama. It's a plodding film with a sappy, unsubtle performance from its lead, who cringes and mugs his way through his schematic fall from grace. Despite flashes of interesting filmmaking and noirish imagery, this film is only sporadically worthwhile as an indication of the great director Hitchcock would go on to be.