Saturday, June 5, 2010


Title: Downhill
Year: 1927
Studio: Gainsborough
Screenplay: Eliot Stannard
Source Material: A play by David L'Estrange
Running Time: 82 minutes
A Silent Picture in Black & White

Saturday 5th June, 8:00am
I awoke early this morning, but I had slept for nine and a half hours having gone to bed at 7:30 last night. The conference I had attended had obviously had more of an effect on me than I had realised. So, awaking bright and early, I thought I'd sort myself out. The day had a few chores lying ahead and I knew I must get a number of them done, but I didn't want to miss out on the latest Hitchcock update.
Did I mention previously what I had discovered on Google?
Well, I was asked by 'blogger' whether I wanted this blog 'searchable' on Google. I ticked the 'yes please, oh how I'd love to be stalked and know what it's like to be famous' box.
Once I had done that, I tried Googling myself.
It seems somebody has beaten me to it and also begun a blog of watching Hitchcock's films chronologically. Damn it!
Still, I am doing it for my own pleasure, really. So it doesn't really matter.
Anyway, on with the plot...

Roderick Berwick - Ivor Novello
Sir Thomas Berwick - Norman McKinnell
Lady Berwick - Lillian Braithwaite
Timothy Wakeley - Robin Irving
Rev. Henry Wakeley - Jerrold Robertshaw
Sybil Wakeley - Sybil Rhoda
Mabel - Annette Benson
Julia Fotheringale - Isabel Jeans
Archie - Ian Hunter
Madame Michet - Barbara Gott
'Poetess' - Violet Farebrother

Here is a tale of two school-boys who make a pact of loyalty. One of them kept it - at a price.

The World of Youth
We begin with a private school Rugby match. Roderick Berwick plays well for his team, 'The Old Boys'. Once off the pitch, we meet Timothy Wakeley, Roddy's room mate. His father, a Reverend, and his sister Sybil are attending and they take note of a sign stating the requirement of entries for scholarship to be handed into the bursar no later than February 22nd. Tim and his father are keen for Oxford University. Sybil wanders off and accidentally catches sight of the rugby boys in their changing rooms (shock, horror! and a Reverend's daughter, too!) Afterward, there's a huge dinner at the private school's dining room and families of the boys attend. One of the waitresses, Mabel, flirts with Tim and hands him a note:

Darling Boy, I'll be alone at the shop after six. Do come. Love, Mabel

Then, whilst the crowd are saying grace, Roddy stumbles in to the dining hall. Acknowledging the grace, he waits by the door and Mable cheekily plays footsie with him.
After dinner, both Tim and Roddy turn up at the shop Mabel works at; 'Ye Olde Bunne Shop'. It sells a variety of groceries and sweets. It's a quiet evening at the shop and Mabel invites the boys into the back room. She puts on a record called 'I Want Some Money' - a telling sign of her nature.
She dances with Roddy and then Tim, although he steps on her foot. A young boy comes into the shop and Roddy goes to assist. He accidentally charges the boy incorrectly. the boy then returns with his mates so they can all get 'bargains'. Feeling bad, he gives Mabel the money to make up the difference, proving his character. However, all sorts of shenanigans have been going on behind his back.
As the boys leave, Mabel highlights the sign on the door detailing the shop's closing times on Wednesday afternoon to Tim.

Later on, we witness a school assembly in which Roderick is announced as the new year captain. He is given a new cap with an 'honour' badge adorning it.

Later still, both Tim and Roddy are called to the headmaster's office. Mabel is there already, sitting quietly. She had brought a serious charge against one of the boys as she has fallen pregnant. She accuses Roddy, knowing full well that he comes from a wealthy background. The real culprit is Timothy, but from a meagre background of a Reverend's son and in need of scholarship, she feels she should be milking a richer cow.
Roddy is an honourable boy as his cap states. He takes the fall and is expelled. He makes a pact with Timothy to never tell the truth, He leaves and returns home. His mother is delighted to see him, but his father is suspicious. When Roddy explains, his father does not believe him, calls him a liar and Roddy leaves dramatically.

Roddy arrives in the centre of London and heads to the underground so he can escape his life and find a new one. We see him descend the escalator...

So the pact was kept - - at a price.

The World of Make Believe
The second act opens with, it seems, Roddy working as a waiter at a seaside resort. We see him pocket a pretty girl's cigarette case. Then we pull back to see he is actually on stage in a theatre as part of a chorus in a musical.
Later, he turns up at the star's dressing room. She is Julia Fotheringale, a beautiful blonde who loves the luxuries of life. He uses the cigarette case as a device to go and see her. She seems to enjoy his rather transparent attempts at wooing her. He is also being watched by her co-star, Archie, who also has designs on her. He sits in earshot the whole time and drinks alcohol. The three of them leave the theatre together in a taxi as it's pouring down with rain, but Roddy alights and catches the next bus home. Upon his return to his tiny abode, he discovers his God-mother has died and left him thirty thousand pounds.

He returns to the theatre the next day, looking rather dressed up to the nines. This impresses Julia a lot. If it were a cartoon, she'd have dollar signs in her eyes.
Archie basically concedes defeat but points out a pile of receipts and bills, highlighting her love of the finer things in life.

Roddy and Julia marry, and soon have their own beautiful apartment which, unwisely, Roddy has signed over to her. She has been spending like crazy and the bank account is now overdrawn by two hundred pounds. She has been having an affair with Archie who has continued to buy her expensive gifts. Roddy comes home and catches them and fights with Archie. He wins, but it is Julia who kicks Roddy out, leaving him penniless once more. He leaves the apartment and descends in the elevator...

The World of Lost Illusions
In Paris, Roddy has found himself as a dance gigolo in the ball rooms of the Moulin Rouge. His boss is Madame Michet and it is clear she has given him a helping hand as he still owes her some money. He dances with different girls for a small sum throughout the night. His despair is apparent in the wee small hours and a woman who is only described as a 'poetess' pays for the pleasure of his company - she does not dance, she merely talks to him and he tells his story. She pities him and she makes advances but he spurns them as he has sunk so low.
Suddenly, a man is choking, the staff try to help, some go to open the windows to let some fresh air in. Dawn is breaking and light splices through the seedy darkness, highlighting the pitiful displays of human behaviour around the room. The screen cap illustrates: Searching, relentless sunlight
He looks around the room like he's having an epiphany. Then he simply quits and walks out into the morning air.

Downhill - till what was left of him was thrown to the rats of a Marseilles dockside.
The finale. Roddy has succumbed to a dark place. He inhabits a dingy, squalid room along with a young black man, an older whit man and a black 'Mame' (although, oddly, this is a white actress blacked up!)
These three dubious figures sit around smoking and drinking. They worry for their friend as he has become weak and feeble. They find in his wallet a letter to Timothy detailing his plans:

Dear Tim,
I am done for. If you ever get this it will mean that I'm dead and buried. But I want you to know that I've kept my promise. Roddy.

The three pity him and drag him away. They put him on a boat to England. Roddy is still delirious during the journey and sees visions of those who have betrayed him laughing and counting his money. He also has a vision of Tim and Mabel, seemingly happy and together at the Olde Bunne Shoppe.
Once back in England, he walks all the way back to London, driven purely by blind instinct. He hesitantly rings the bell of his family home. The butler answers, but barely recognises him. Once indoors, his parents return home. His father is shocked, but embraces him, telling him that he is forgiven and that he knows the whole truth and wants his son's pardon. The family hug and all is well again.
In a brief coda, we see Roddy doing what he loves most, playing rugby with the Old Boys.

Great Lines
There aren't that many 'classic' lines - most are simply to advance the plot and explain what's going on. However, I did like the following:
Madame Michet to client: "There is a nice English boy, very cheap at fifty francs a dance."
And the poetess to Roddy in the ball room; "You seem different, somehow - - among all this artificiality - "

The very opening shot of a referee blowing a whistle is Hitchcock playing with his dry sense of irony. A loud noise in a silent film.
He uses some beautiful shots in this film including some superb panning shots at the Moulin rouge, tracking shots following various characters paths and for one brief moment we see a technique which in the Twenty First Century is being used ubiquitously as if it was a brand new concept. I am sure you will have seen a film or TV show in which a character is walking in a daze. The camera is positioned in front of their face as they stare blankly ahead and we move with them, watching their background disappear behind them. Sure, it's used all the time these days, but when Roddy is staggering back home to London, we experience the same motion. It may not be as technically perfect as we are used to, but it certainly provides the same effect.
One rather risque piece of comedy comes when in Julia's dressing room. Archie is in the foreground whilst Roddy clumsily attempts to woo Julia. Archie, being a more mature man is not impressed. We see him spray soda from the soda fountain directly in front of our line of sight to Roddy and Julia, symbolising Roddy's youth and premature... well, I don't think you need me to spell it out for you.
The purposeful division of the film into four acts works well and reminds viewers of its theatrical origins. Also, the book-ending of the film with the two rugby matches are almost like symbolic curtains to the picture.
Hitch's use of montage work well here. Both for flashbacks and fantasy sequences. The rather creepy scenes Roddy witnesses whilst delirious on the boat are quite nightmarish in a very true sense. When he watches those who have hurt or betrayed him all seated together, counting the money that was rightfully his and their laughs of derision are the moments of paranoia we all may have experienced in our dreams.
The frequent visual references to a descent into hell are powered home by longer edits. The escalator heading down into the underground and the elevator leading down from his luxury apartment both linger a couple of seconds longer than one might expect, purely to illicit an uncomfortable sense of danger and depression.
I wonder if the large gates from which Roddy exits the Moulin Rouge ball rooms are symbolic of one of the gates of hell.
And, I'm sorry, but the 'poetess' who tries to extract his soul through discussion? SHE LOOKS LIKE A MAN!!

My Verdict
This is a film which had me confused in places and in awe in others. Some of the scenes are delicately played and evoke the emotions one is supposed to feel. However, there are some parts which feel a little confused. I have to admit to saying out loud on occasion "What's going on?" and it would take a few moments for the pieces to fall into place. This may have been deliberate, but I doubt that. The relationship between Julia and Archie was rather bizarre and I am still a bit unnerved by it. He looked like her dad!
The good outweighs the bad, but I would like to have seen what became of Timothy. Surely he should have got some retribution for his actions? 5/10

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