Downhill (1927)

Synopsis:

Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello, The Lodger) is expelled from a prestigious school after he takes the rap for a friend’s misconduct. Shunned by family and friends, Roddy becomes destitute and his life takes an even sadder turn after he meets an actress.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“…’till what was left of him was thrown to the rats of a Marseilles dockside.’

After the monster hit The Lodger, director Alfred Hitchcock suddenly became a hot property. He immediately set his eyes on another company — the newly constructed BIP (British International Pictures) — that would give him greater artistic freedom. The next two films were assignments he reluctantly accepted in order to fulfill his contract with Gainsborough Pictures so he could be free to move on to better things.

Downhill was one of the last films Hitchcock made under his old BIP contract. Although the director spent the rest of his career demonizing this movie, I found Downhill to be involving, stylish and inventive. And even though this is a melodrama, not a thriller, the film fits perfectly into the Master of Suspense’s filmography.

Downhill is an adaptation of a play co-written by none other than actor Ivor Novello. “It was a poor play,” Hitchcock assured French director Francois Truffaut in the famous 1962 interview. I’m assuming the director never got over the fact that he was forced to make the movie. Hitchcock also complained about Novello not being believable as a schoolboy. I thought the Welsh actor was pretty good in a difficult role.

In his book The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Hitch’s biographer Donald Spoto said, “Roddy (Novello’s character) is thus grandfather to all Hitchcock heroes who learn that a recognition of their true humanity requires an excursion to the frontiers of their shadowy side.” Roddy’s brutal down-spiral is told in an abstract manner, an artistic choice that’s thematically and visually nothing short of riveting.

In Downhill, you can clearly see Hitchcock‘s idea of pain as a vehicle to achieve true understanding of the essence of things. The director was Catholic, but there is something Buddha-like about the way he connects suffering, psychological growth, and self-realization. I don’t know much about religion and/or spirituality, but in this instance, I found Hitchcock’s arguments compelling and worthy of reflection.

There are a few moments that will stick out in your mind. First, the film has a glorious sequence near the end where Hitchcock uses what appears to be a hand-held camera, something that looks straight out of a movie by Paul Greengrass (United 93).

The second moment I found irresistible was a spooky dream sequence. Hitchcock doesn’t announce that the scene is coming by blurring the screen as usual. He goes straight into the nightmare — think of Wes Craven’s 1984 classic horror movie A Nightmare on Elm Street — and you are not quite sure where the dream begins/ends.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Downhill is a nearly forgotten Hitchcock film. The director himself perpetuated the notion that this is a worthless movie. I beg to differ with HitchcockDownhill is a captivating silent movie, especially in the context of Hitch’s career. Highly recommended! B&W, Tinted, 82 minutes, Not Rated.

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