1920s, 3/4, Alfred Hitchcock, Drama, Review

Downhill (or When Boys Leave Home)

Image result for downhill 1927 poster

#20 in my Ranking of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.

Without Alfred Hitchcock’s inventive camera, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this movie as much as I did. It’s largely predictable and doesn’t come to a resolution that I think properly utilizes some of the elements within the story, but it’s fine. With Hitchcock’s emerging talent, inspired heavily by German Expressionism, the story gains a cinematic edge that pushes it up in quality ever so slightly.

Roddy is the king of his prep school in Britain. He’s from a wealthy family, scores winning points in rugby matches, and gets appointed as the captain of the school (whatever that meansā€¦Britain, amiright?). When he and his best friend Tim decide to join a low class working girl at the baking shop she works at for an afterhours jaunt of dancing and fun, Roddy falls into a lie that he won’t extricate himself from because it would harm his best friend Tim. You see, the girl was trying to make love to the son of a rich man Roddy but ended up with Tim instead. She comes to the school some time later with a charge of prostitution against Roddy and the accusation that he is the father of her unborn child. Based purely on this accusation, Roddy is expelled from school, Tim refusing to take any blame because he had just gotten a scholarship that could get him into Oxford and the news of his failure would destroy his father.

Roddy’s father isn’t too kind on his son either, as it goes, calling him a liar to his face. Unable to take the insult, Roddy leaves to make his own life.

This first half hour is full of shadows, little camera moves (my favorite being when the girl is in the headmaster’s office to accuse and she can choose between Roddy and Tim, she steps forward towards camera, the camera pulls back slightly to reveal the two young men on either side of her in frame), and strong performances that sell the story. It’s also where the movie feels the least formulaic.

The second part starts with a seemingly effortlessly ingenious shot that starts with Roddy in a tux, as it pulls back and shows that he’s actually a waiter, and then it pulls back again to reveal that he’s actually a bit player in a theater production, all preceded by a title card that says, “The world of make-believe.” It’s a very good precursor to what is to happen, for Roddy is hopelessly in love with the lead actress, a fashionable and famous women with very expensive tastes and a man who feels that Roddy is no threat. When he suddenly comes into thirty thousand pounds, he instantly uses it to woo the girl, and the girl and her man instantly recognize it as an opportunity to swindle the young man. The further downfall of Roddy is predictable, which makes this section less compelling than it could be, but it’s still well filmed and well-presented overall.

The third section sees Roddy having made his way to Marseille where he dances for cheap with lonely old women in a dance hall, in seeming perpetual debt to the matron of the place. It’s when the shutters are opened and sunlight shows Roddy the drunkenness and ugliness around him that he realizes how far he’s fallen. Disgusted, he runs to the docks where he will waste away. Some find him, think he’ll be a good source of money if they take him back to certainly rich friends in England, and shove him on a boat on the southern coast of France heading to the United Kingdom. In the five days Roddy spends onboard, he has a series of delirious visions (all given a sickly green filter) of his father and the people who’ve abused him through his journey. It’s a rather harrowing experience, and he climbs off the ship, still delirious, seeing his father’s face in a policeman’s, and staggers home.

This section is a step up from the second, feeling less predictable and more like actual drama, combined with some of the most visually inventive moments of the film.

It’s the coda of the film, where Roddy makes it home, that I have a real issue with. Tim never appears again in the film once Roddy says goodbye to him at the prep school. Since he is as much the orchestrator of Roddy’s misery as the girl, I felt like he needed to appear at the end in some capacity. If I were writing it, I would have probably had Tim, now a successful young man in business, fully admit his fault to Roddy but refuse to do anything about it again, because I am a heartless bastard who does terrible things to my characters. The fact that he doesn’t appear at all feels wrong to me. Instead, Roddy just goes home where he discovers that his father has found out the truth and all will be well. It’s not a terribly compelling ending.

As a showcase for Hitchcock’s emerging visual style, it’s a wonderful relic. As a drama, it sort of works, though it’s ending needed something more. The acting is really good, especially from Ivor Novello, the actor who plays Roddy. He sells the innocent determination and slow degradation of his character really well. It’s a good little example of Hitchcock learning his trade and producing quality content in the silent era.

Rating: 3/4

3 thoughts on “Downhill (or When Boys Leave Home)”

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