Ivor Novello is a Schoolboy in Disgrace in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Downhill”

14 02 2010

“It was a rather poor play . . . the dialogue was pretty dreadful in spots.” — Alfred Hitchcock

1927 was a busy year for Alfred Hitchcock. After the triumph of “The Lodger” and the strong reception for “The Ring,” not to mention the delayed release of the earlier “The Pleasure Garden,” Hitch’s last picture of the year was “Downhill.” This was Ivor Novello’s second and final starring role with Hitch, based on a stage play cowritten by Novello under the pen name David L’Estrange.

Novello plays a public school boy named Roddy Berwick, a rugby star who has made a pact of loyalty with his roommate, Tim. A young woman who works at their school invites them to the local bakery, where she also works, to dance.

Soon, the boys are called before the school’s headmaster. The young woman has made some accusations, and Roddy takes the blame for Tim, who has gotten the girl pregnant (though it’s never said explicitly). Roddy is expelled, and when he arrives home, his wealthy father refuses to believe that he’s innocent. Hurt, Roddy leaves the comfort of his home. He gets a job as a waiter at a nightclub, and becomes infatuated with the star. Roddy inherits some money, and she takes up with him. They are soon married, and Roddy sees that with her spending habits, his inheritance won’t go far. He catches her with her former boyfriend (Ian Hunter, who also appeared in “The Ring”), but when he tries to kick her out, she points out that the apartment is in her name, and so he ends up on the street.

He ends up in Marseilles, being paid 50 francs a dance at a sleazy club, then falls ill and winds up in a garrett. Some local sailors learn of his fall from grace and decide to send him back to London. Delirious, he imagines the women from his past mocking him as he crosses the English Channel.

Back home again, he wanders the streets of London until he stumbles upon his own house. He is taken in by the butler, and when his parents arrive home for the evening, his father explains that they’ve been searching for him. He’s learned the truth about everything, and begs forgiveness. The film ends with Roddy back at school, playing rugby once more.

Hitch’s growing confidence is evident in “Downhill.” He’s internalized the influences of German and Russian film – there are only a few montages, which he deploys judiciously while Roddy is delirious.

As in “The Lodger,” Ivor Novello is a treat – he’s charming and convincing, even though he looks rather too old to be a public school boy… and Roddy’s naivete is astounding.

Hitch’s ability to tell the story visually continues to grow here – there are very few intertitles in the film, and several of those set the scene by saying things like “The World of Illusion,” rather than telling the story.

Hitch also visually echoes the plot’s downhill momentum throughout the film with moments in which Roddy literally goes downhill, by walking down stairs, descending on an escalator, or pushing the down button in an elevator.

There's something almost Christ-like about Roddy as he's half-carried down the steps into the ship's galley

The other visual that struck me while watching “Downhill” was Hitch’s use of the walk of shame in the first third of the movie – there are several instances of Roddy slowly walking down a long hall as he considers his plight, and what he must do to salvage his future.

Ultimately, “Downhill” isn’t much of a story – like many silent films, it’s a bit simplistic. But the visuals that Hitch creates are distinctive and memorable, and that makes it more than worth watching.

And, for those keeping track, still no cameo by Hitch in this film. He will return next in the 1928 movie “Easy Virtue.”

Up next, we move into 1928 with a tale of a lonely country gentlemen in “The Farmer’s Wife.”

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