Downhill: Hitchcock comedy is early showcase of technical innovation and flair

Alfred Hitchcock, “Downhill” (1927)

Before he found his niche as Master of Suspense, the young Alfred Hitchcock made a few films in several genres that include comedy: this early effort, the fifth full-feature film of his career, is a comedy lampooning the customs and attitudes of British upper class society of the late 1920’s. The plot is structured in a way that it probably won’t hold most modern audiences’ attention to the end – it comes in chunks so there’s no flow and as a result tension building towards a climax isn’t possible – but students of history might find some value in the way the story unfolds that reveals people’s attitudes toward money, appearances and reputation at the time. The real worth of “Downhill” is in the techniques and methods Hitchcock used to film the story and emphasise aspects such as mood, atmosphere and the direction of the plot. Motifs that he would use in later films such as “Vertigo” and “Psycho” make an early showing here. We see a keen and eager eye, maybe too eager, for technical innovation and a flair for experimenting with different points of view: the use of the camera to draw in audiences and make them voyeurs and participants in the action that began in the previous film “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” is now coming into full flower.

The plot is a threadbare coming-of-age / downward-spiral story. Teenager Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello), in his last year at an exclusive boys’ school, is undone by an incident involving his best friend and a waitress for which he’s entirely blameless. He’s expelled by his school and disowned by his father. Berwick’s reluctance to rat on his friend (who needs to stay at school to get a university scholarship) forces him to accept the humiliation of expulsion and rejection so he leaves home to venture into the big bad world. He’s clearly out of his depth; each adventure he has plunges him lower and lower into social and financial misery until rescue and reconciliation arrive at the eleventh hour. In each mishap including the original incident that gets him expelled from school there’s a woman who exploits Berwick for his looks, his money or his youth.

At 34 years of age, Novello was old enough to play Berwick’s old man but as he was co-writer of the play on which “Downhill” is based, I’ll leave the criticism there. Hitchcock must have enjoyed throwing Novello into situations where women manipulate him; Novello’s homosexuality was an open secret in the British arts and culture scene, he was strikingly handsome and presumably well-off in a varied career that included writing songs and plays, and all these aspects of the real-life man are hinted at in his character’s encounters with women. A couple of very early scenes suggest Berwick is uncomfortable with women and may be homosexual which would give an extra frisson to the manipulation that follows. If we allow for overly expressionistic acting which was common in silent films of the period, the acting is not bad and in parts is even natural; Hitchcock allows the actors to talk normally on screen and audiences have to guess what it is they’re saying, there being very few dialogue or title cards. One side-effect is that it’s difficult to tell who or what characters some actors are playing, and even the MacGuffin incident that gets Berwick in trouble isn’t clear: the Internet Movie Database says it is theft, Wikipedia says it is making the waitress pregnant.

The plot is fleshed out by camera shots that use odd angles, unusual points of view, overlapping images and deep focus shooting to emphasise where the plot gets serious, to capture a mood or emotion, or to warn audiences of what’s ahead, among other things. Perhaps there’s too much story-telling rather than narrative at some points in the movie: the bird’s-eye view of the escalator scene, in which viewers see Berwick going down the mechanical steps from the top, is a heavy-handed portent of what’s to befall the youth (the scene takes place just after he leaves home). From a technical viewpoint, the film’s stand-out scenes come near the end where Berwick is packed off home from Marseilles on a ship by some kindly sailors and he suffers delirium and seasickness. The camera hovers from above, like a bird, to suggest dizzyness; and superimposed images in which circles and spirals – and even pumping pistons! (ooh, that’s phallic) – appear in Berwick’s dreams to suggest a disordered mind affected by sickness and starvation. Berwick’s old enemies come together in a dream to jeer at him. Once Berwick is back in London and trying to find his way home on foot, the camera adopts his point of view and staggers with him, with jerky, unfocussed, doubled-up or overlapped images – this is as close as Hitchcock gets to filming in a style modern audiences associate with handheld cameras. Personal points of view are prominent in “Downhill”: in an early scene, an actress leans far back on her chair to see things upside-down and the next camera shot, done from her point of view, is upside-down. Hitchcock also enjoys playing with particular points of view and subverting the assumptions that come with them: in one scene, Berwick appears to be working as a waiter at a restaurant, only for the camera to draw back and show that he is actually a stage actor in a musical revue!

Significantly the only people who treat Berwick kindly and don’t see him as a money-pot are poor and of black or foreign origins: a black woman feeds him soup and kicks a couple of sailors (one black, the other white but definitely not English) into action to help him to the ship. This was one of the rare times Hitchcock made a movie that featured black people sympathetically if stereotypically. There is no indication though that Berwick is thankful for the help or that they are repaid. Though the film is a comedy – and there are plenty of comic moments including the gag of Berwick’s young wife still retaining her ugly, middle-aged lover! – there are plenty of dark moments throughout the odyssey, all highlighted by contrasts of light and shadow that reflect German Expressionist influences.

Whether Berwick learns any lessons about the superficiality of the world that made him or the really important lesson that in his level of society money and appearances talk louder than moral integrity is never clear. Does he become wiser about how the world operates and how it eats up its own innocent children? The film’s resolution and ending suggest maybe not. It’s an interesting intellectual exercise to speculate on what Hitchcock would have done if he had decided to remake the film years later with the resources of Hollywood at his disposal: he would have changed the ending to something more ambiguous and very dark but Berwick might then achieve some kind of enlightenment, self-awareness, redemption and healing. A Freudian psychological subtext would be added to plump up the story and make it more credible.

In spite of a flimsy and out-of-date plot, “Downhill” is worth seeing for the flair and confidence Hitchcock brings to  making the story work. There are many motifs and symbols that appear here which the director would later use in “Vertigo”, especially in its psychedelic dream sequence, and the early film might be seen as a test-drive to that more famous Hollywood work.

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