It’s turned out to be post-war decadence week, what with Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday , Graves’s depiction of polysexual conflict and now Hitchcock’s 1927 film Downhill. The storyline of this film is simple:
Roddy, the hero (played by Ivor Novello, who had suffered so exquisitely in The Lodger, Hitchcock’s previous film) is a public schoolboy who gets accused of making the school waitress pregnant. He didn’t do it, but is covering up for his friend, who desperately needs to stay at school to get his Oxford scholarship. Roddy is expelled by the stern headmaster (and responds with an anguished “Will I still be able to play for the Old Boys?”) He is then thrown out of his home by his disgusted father and has to shift for himself. When he comes into money, Roddy marries an actress who spends it all and is unfaithful to him. He drifts downward, and becomes a gigolo (“…and at fifty francs a dance he’s very cheap”). The poor chap ends up a total wreck among the rats and lowlifes in the docks of Marseilles, but some kind sailors arrange for him to be taken back to London on a tramp steamer. The film ends with the prodigal’s return.
It’s based on a play – obviously a very episodic one – by “David L’Estrange” a pseudonym for Novello himself, writing with Constance Collier (who had once been engaged to Max Beerbohm). I’d be interested to see if the play made more of a character – “The Poetess” – who appears in the gigolo episode. She’s played very strikingly by Violet Farebrother, but doesn’t have much to do apart from looking intense and destructive, as she tempts Roddy to offer services more personal than just dancing. It’s only the credits that tell you she’s a poetess. I’m interested because she reminds me of a similar amoral bohemian/arty-type harpy in Wilfrid Ewart’s novel The Way of Revelation. Most women are dangerous in twenties fiction, but poetic women tend to be more dangerous than most.
She’s just one of the wicked women in the film – it’s a misogynist’s beanfeast. There’s also the flirty waitress at school, the greedy cheating wife, the woman who runs the dance hall… There’s a brilliantly done delerium sequence where all the women get together to give Roddy evil dreams.
What makes the film worth watching is Hitchcock’s inventiveness. The simple story would have needed crackling dialogue to make an effective play, and of course Hitchcock is adapting it to a silent film (and he despised title cards – there are very few of them). So clever camerawork and a wealth of imaginative detail is needed to make the film involving. There is a very good sequence near the start where a huge amount is done with briefly-caught facial expressions and glances, and the delirium sequence lets Hitchcock really enjoy himself. I gather that in early prints it was tinted pale green.
But it wasn’t tinted on my DVD. I can’t complain, because this was bought very cheaply on Ebay, but the disc doesn’t even have a music track. Which is a pity, because silent films were never shown in silent cinemas (In fact, my mother once told me that what she most noticed when sound came in was how quiet the cinemas became – no continuous piano, and no chatting). I put on a CD for background. I tried some Ivor Novello songs first, since he was the star, but they were too soupy for the mood of the film, so I replaced these with instrumental Gershwin – which seemed just right.