Violet FarebrotherIan HunterIsabel JeansIvor Novello
Downhill
Also known as: When Boys Leave Home
Medium: film
Year: 1927
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Constance Collier, Ivor Novello, Eliot Stannard
Keywords: silent
Country: UK
Actor: Ivor Novello, Robin Irvine, Isabel Jeans, Ian Hunter, Norman McKinnel, Annette Benson, Sybil Rhoda, Lilian Braithwaite, Violet Farebrother, Ben Webster, Hannah Jones, Jerrold Robertshaw, Barbara Gott, Alf Goddard, J. Nelson, Daisy Jackson
Format: 80 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017825/
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 4 April 2012
It's an Alfred Hitchcock silent movie. I didn't like it.
The story is bollocks. That's the problem. It doesn't have plot holes or anything, but it's lazy and contains nothing of interest. Its protagonist (Ivor Novello) is by turns ruined and rescued by things out of his control. He suffers, nobly. He goes from bad to worse. He takes the blame for something he didn't do, although in fairness that's the best bit of the film because at least this means he's steering his own fate with his decisions. Unfortunately that's in Act One. After that, appropriately enough, it's all downhill, although I suspect the title was supposed to refer to the trajectory of Novello's life rather than the quality of the storytelling.
One peculiarity is that Novello is effectively being persecuted by women. The film's most important characters are male (Novello, his father and his best friend who sort of betrays him), but every time something happens to him, there's a woman behind it. He deserves neither credit nor blame, except to the extent that he's been showing poor judgement in having anything to do with these members of the fair sex. A woman makes a false accusation against him (bad). A woman dies and leaves him a fortune (good). A woman marries him (good) and then dumps him for his money (bad). Women employ him as a gigolo (not as much fun as it sounds) and drive him to a state of delirium and hallucinations (unfortunately not in a good way). It's as if the universe is female, whimsical and using Novello as its plaything. You could choose to see this as misogynistic, except that Novello is so useless that you'll almost be cheering for the bullies. Furthermore two of those examples involve pretty girls whom Novello could have probably captivated if he'd chosen to do so, but instead his dreamy unworldliness saw them ending up with other men.
There's some background to this. Ivor Novello was a beautiful man of charm and great success as a songwriter, scriptwriter, singer and actor on stage and screen. This is just one of his films to be adapted from one of his own stage plays. Significantly he was also homosexual and "a consummate flirt who collected lovers as he gathered lilacs." His parties were famous. He often played introspective, suffering man of class and this is another such role. Maybe he was deliberately or unintentionally saying something about how he saw women in it? Maybe it just grew from his personality and what he'd experienced as a homosexual, good-looking film star?
That's not strictly relevant to what's on the screen, though. What we have is a poor attempt at tragedy whose hero never does anything to save himself. He just drifts along, pulled hither and thither by the plot. Sometimes he gets lifted up, but more often he's pulled down. Even the resolution is cheap and perfunctory.
So I didn't like it. What of Hitchcock's involvement?
Most importantly, he doesn't save it. Hitchcock tends to be more honest to his scriptwriters than you might imagine from the auteur theory Hitchcock-worshippers. A Thornton Wilder film by Hitchcock will still feel true to Thornton Wilder. Thus when the original storyline is worthless, as here, the film will be too.
However that said, he does add a bit of flavour. Act One shows us Hitchcock's idea of school life, which is entertaining in his savage view of small boys. Look out for the small boy beating up his friend on the stairs for no reason whatsoever, or alternatively the grubby, bestial lumps who buy things from Novello in a shop. That scene's quite funny. Then later, in France, the world of gigolo-Novello appears to be populated by the undead and his sponsor resembles a scary man in a dress. People have bruise-like markings on their faces and at one point are exposed like vampires to "searching, relentless sunlight" when curtains are suddenly opened. At one table is a man who made me think of Frankenstein.
There's also visual metaphor with lifts, staircases and a London Underground escalators going down, down, down. The hallucination sequences are okay too, although they could have been better.
That's quite good. However not all of that is deliberate, since there's a similar vampire drag queen look even at the school in Act One, with occasional people appearing to have bleached faces and lipstick. I suspect it's simply an artefact of 1927 movie technology. Further production problems include the ludicrousness of 34-year-old Novello as a schoolboy, which might be the stupidest-looking thing in any Hitchcock film, and the problems Hitchcock's having with his intertitles. He's experimenting with their reduction. This is good. In general a film that can tell its story visually, without intertitles, will be stronger than one that's relying on them. Hitchcock is a good and interesting silent director, but unfortunately here he hasn't got the balance right. There's at least one unnecessary intertitle that I'd have liked him to remove ("LIAR!"), but on the other hand the storytelling is sometimes unclear. What's that false accusation against which Novello doesn't defend himself, eh? Theft? Getting the girl pregnant? I was assuming the latter, but that leaves questions about elapsed time.
The actors aren't bad, though. Novello is charming and makes us like his character right through to the end, which can't have been easy, although he also doesn't give the story the drive it needs. His dad, Norman McKinnel, does a great line in evil facial expressions. I also liked the old maid who'll go from smiling to frowning at the flick of a switch.
Halfway through, my notes say "where's the narrative impetus?" It feels like a mechanical adaptation of an overly long novel, with undercooked story beats and characters who are badly introduced. What's more, for once some of the blame for that is probably Hitchcock's. He needed to take another look at those intertitles. The stage play is probably better than the film, although of course that wouldn't be hard.