Hitchcock’s follow-up to THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG, again starring composer and matinee idol Ivor Novello, doesn’t have much of a reputation. Peter Conrad’s The Hitchcock Murders, for instance, doesn’t even mention it — maybe because it doesn’t feature any murders.
(Incidentally, if you follow the IMDb, we should be discussing THE RING this week, but overviews of Hitch’s career confirm that DOWNHILL was in fact his fourth production.)
The tale of a public schoolboy who faces disgrace and expulsion for buying sexual favours with money filched from the tuck shop, whose name takes on an amusingly double entendre ~
This seems to me a very useful Hitch film, since the world of the English public school was one he knew well. His parents, aspiring to better him, had packed him off to St. Ignatius, a Catholic boarding school, where the young A.H. began to learn all about suspense from the masters, who would cane you on Friday for something you did on Monday. And indeed, Hitch does manage to create some dramatic tension from a visit to the headmaster’s office in DOWNHILL, tracking slowly towards the scowling head from Novello’s POV.
Following this, we get a track-in on Novello and his chum, from the POV of the accusing flapper, and a dishonest flashback of the kind Hitch later disavowed in STAGE FRIGHT, as she accuses Ivor of knocking her up. (She apparently intends his family to pay child support, but we never find out if this happens — she walks out of the film and is never so much as mentioned again.)
Years later, Hitch would recall with horror the bathos of this scene — ” Does this mean I won’t be able to play in the Old Boy’s match, sir?” asks the heartbroken Ivor. Actually, if this part of the film is less effective than some others, it’s more to do with the impossibility of Ivor Novello, aged 34, playing a schoolboy.
Sliding into depravity by way of a symbolic subway escalator, our hero first takes to the music hall (it’s a slippery slope!). Hitchcock was more familiar with London’s theatre world than many film people, but the main value he derives from this sequence is the elaborate set of false impressions he engineers at the start of the sequence. At first Novello stands, looking rather dashing and well kitted-out in dinner jacket and bow tie. Then Hitch pulls back to reveal that his star is waiting tables at a swank restaurant. Crime rears it’s ugly head as the lad pockets a stray cigarette-case, but then Hitch pans right and reveals a theatre audience watching the scene, which is constructed for their benefit upon the stage.
Inheriting wealth, Novello is able to marry the star of the show, but her expensive tastes soon bankrupt him, a development amusingly presented with the aid of two intertitles. The first reading “£30, 000″ in Large Impressive Letters, the second repeating the same sum in much smaller ones.
Next comes the seedy life of the gigolo/taxi-dancer, evoked with lip-smacking relish by Hitchcock, aided by some ladies made up to look rather ghastly when a shaft of pure sunlight illuminates the ballroom and exposes the decadence therein. (Several of the dramatic high points of the film have to do with setting Ivor at the mercy of predatory women: he manages to look properly intimidated.) How Ivor gets from here to a Marseille dive, strung out on drink or drugs or something, is not quite as clear as I’d like — this film would fail as a How-To guide to achieving full social depravity.
But, while commentators applaud the inverted POV shot of Novello, which anticipates a similar one of Cary Grant in NOTORIOUS (and from there is picked up by Nick Ray for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and HOT BLOOD) and the shadowplay with bamboo curtains in the Bunne Shoppe, I was most impressed by the oneiric climax, where the addled and raddled Novello is packed on a ship to England and hallucinates a mad jumble of events from his life, by virtue both of double-exposures and surreal staging — a sailor on the ship literally becomes Novello’s stern father. Maybe this part of the film seemed to be kicking in because I had just changed the music (my highly fizzy-facky VHS of the film had none) from Mendelssohn to Ellington (I highly recommend Ellington for this movie, it has more of a jazz spirit than you’d think). But this sequence is very experimental and strange, and makes DOWNHILL probably the first Hitchcock film whose happy ending could be read as a dream, or the vision of a dying man.
(It’s been argued, not so much convincingly but very intriguingly, that Hitch films such as SUSPICION and VERTIGO actually become dreams partway through — the second half of VERTIGO, from shortly after Kim Novak’s first death plunge, is all playing in Jimmy Stewart’s grief-deranged head as he vegetates in the asylum, undergoing music therapy, while SUSPICION really ends with the poisoned milk, as Hitch intended, and the big make-up scene with the involved explanation is Joan Fontaine’s fantasy. I don’t believe either of these interpretations, but I love them. Chris Marker posits the VERTIGO hypothesis, Bill Krohn offers the SUSPICION one.)
The happy family reunion and Old Boy’s match which end DOWNHILL come hard on the heels of the dissipated Novello’s hallucinatory sea voyage, which in itself might not be happening (it has some of the same zonked feverishness as Dorothy’s trip to Oz by tornado), so it’s not a huge stretch to see them as imaginary. This probably wasn’t Hitch’s intention, and certainly not the primary interpretation he wanted us to leap to, but it connects DOWNHILL to some very interesting later Hitchcockian conundrums… when a director’s work strays this close to dream, and regularly incorporates dreams, hallucinations, flashbacks and other subjective effects into its narration, it’s easy to imagine it sliding all the way into mirage.