Friday, February 17, 2017
Downhill (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)
Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954), or Psycho (1960). Downhill (retitled When Boys Leave Home for its American release) is a standard melodrama about the calamity brought upon a schoolboy by a shopgirl's accusation and the promise he made that prevents him from revealing the truth. Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello) is a rich young man whose roommate, Tim Wakeley (Robin Irvine), a student attending the school on a scholarship, gets a shopgirl, Mabel (Annette Benson), in what they used to call "trouble." (Or so she supposedly says: No intertitles explicitly reveal the nature of her accusation.) But Mabel pins the blame on Roddy because his family has money. Roddy nobly takes the rap, promising not to reveal the truth because Tim would lose his scholarship. The sequence that sets up the premise for the rest of the film is slow, overlong, and made a bit murkier than it should be by Hitchcock's refusal to use intertitles. But once Roddy leaves school in disgrace and is kicked out by his father (Norman McKinnel), the film picks up the pace. (It's also something of a break for Novello, who was in his mid-30s when the film was made, a bit old to convincingly play a schoolboy.) The first really Hitchcockian touch in the film comes when we find the disgraced Roddy as a waiter, serving a couple at a table in a cafe. The woman leaves her cigarette case behind, and Roddy slips it into his pocket. Has he fallen so far that he now resorts to larceny? No, the camera angle shifts, and we suddenly find that we are onstage. Roddy is a member of the chorus of a musical comedy, and he has taken the case so he can return it to the star of the show, Julia Fotheringale (Isabel Jeans), with whom he is smitten. It's a witty bit of staging that shows the hand of the master. Suffice it to say, things do not go well for Roddy: He inherits a small fortune from his godmother, which makes him an easy mark for the golddigging Julia, whom he marries and who bankrupts him. He becomes a gigolo in a Montmartre dance hall, and declines further until we find him, dissipated and ill, in a Marseilles rooming house. His fortunes take a turn when some sailors, scheduled for trip to England, decide that his family must have money and take him along to collect a reward for returning him. So Roddy makes his way home and is welcomed by his father, who, having learned the truth, has been searching for him all this time. This rather soppy stuff was devised by Novello himself for a play he co-wrote with Constance Collier under the pseudonym David L'Estrange. It was adapted into a scenario by Eliot Stannard, a frequent collaborator with Hitchcock in the silent era. Though the film is on the whole a dud, there are a few moments of brilliance, particularly a stunning scene when a patron in the dance hall suffers some kind of attack and the waiters draw back the curtains to let in fresh air. The morning light floods the hall, revealing the shabbiness of the locale and its aging, over-made-up customers. The scenes in the squalid Marseilles house are also beautifully illuminated by cinematographer Claude L. McDonnell. And those who know of Hitchcock's fear of policemen will relish the first sight Roddy has when he reaches England at the end: a stern-looking bobby patrolling the harbor.