Hitchcock Year, Week 3, Things I Read off the Screen in Downhill


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.



17 Responses to “Hitchcock Year, Week 3, Things I Read off the Screen in Downhill”

  1. How about films that end with a scene that tells you that the story that you just watched really was wholly or partly a dream? The worst example I can think of is Fritz Lang’s otherwise brilliant The Woman in the Window. SPOILERS FOLLOW, as they say. As I’m sure you know, Edward G Robinson’s trapped killer commits suicide at the end of the film. Except he doesn’t, because the final scene shows him waking up from a bad dream, which he presumably started having way back in the second or third scene. Aargh.

    Like Marker or Krohn with the Hitchcock films, I like to imagine that the final scene is a soothing fantasy created by Edward G’s dying brain, as that would be INDESCRIBABLY BETTER. Sadly, I know it’s not…

  2. Well, your wishful interpretation is perfectly valid, the author being dead an all that. We may know that Lang intended his ending to be taken literally (because he couldn’t stomach the script’s fatalism!), and he did at least manage it in an unbroken take, which is quite nifty, but there’s no reason why we can’t accpet a new reading if it improves the film.

    The all-time worst dream-ending is probably Siodmak’s (The Strange Affair of) Uncle Harry, which again renders most of the film a dream. Fortunately, this is preceded by a perfect UNhappy ending, so we can just ignore the stoopid one (which was voted for by test audiences, choosing from five or six options. They unquestionably selected the worst).

  3. Very oddly, I just started watching Basil Dearden’s A Place to Go, which stars Mike Sarne, who went to Hollywood and created another atrocious it-was-all-a-dream ending — with Myra Breckinridge. He’s almost as disastrous a leading man as he was an auteurL but his scenes with Rita Tushingham have charm.

    Incredible to think that in 1970 a bum actor could walk into a major studio and say “I’ve got a brilliant idea — it was all a dream!” and get hired on the spot.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    Brian DePalma’s FEMME FATALE which is one of my favourites of his films deals with the dream principle. It’s one of his better essays on Hitchcock style, this time dealing with the Hedren films.

    To me SUSPICION as a dream doesn’t make sense. Krohn’s own research actually debunked a lot of Hitchcock’s whines about how-he-was-suppressed. The early drafts worked on Hitchcock make it clear that he never considered to make Cary Grant really a killer. His projected ending with the glass of milk is likely something he came up with later since it sounds so “Hitchcockian”. Hitchcock’s ending which was shot was actually Joan Fontaine dithering on drinking the glass and then walking in on Cary Grant about to commit suicide. This was laughed at by preview endings. So the ending that we know comes today.

    SUSPICION is about the fears and insecurities of the woman about living that life in a state of permanent insecurity stemming from her loneliness, her emotional masochism(she wants Johnny to be guilty of something…), the point of the film is that it pivot around that doubt and that doubt is by no means extinguished by that highly enigmatic embrace over her shoulder.

    One funny anecdote about that film. The studios felt that there were too many camera angles that showed Cary in a threatening posture and they chopped the film down to 65mns. According to McGilligan, “Hitchcock’s howls of anguish were heard all over Hollywood” but eventually the bosses changed it back to status-quo because they figured out that Hitch didn’t shoot coverage and there was no non-threatening camera angles of Cary Grant(since the film is so devoted to recording Fontaine’s subjectivity). I think SUSPICION is a masterpiece and one of Hitchcock’s best an Joan Fontaine was better there than REBECCA and deservedly won an Oscar for that role.

  5. Well, Krohn has also argued that by viewing the film as rom the POV of a fantasist, it becomes one of the best Hitchcocks of its era. The dream interp is just another wrinkle.

    His research (I just read it last week) also showed that Hitch had been playing with “postal” imagery all thru the shoot, as if he was somehow hoping to use the incriminating letter ending. But as he himself said, that ending was never even written, much less shot.

    I’m going to be watching out for more dreamlike happy endings, it’ll be fin to come up with new readings. Maybe we can redeem Stage Fright for you!

  6. One of the very best dream movies is Fellini’s scandalously underrated City of Women

  7. Yes, it really has an Alice in Wonderland structure. Was thinking about it as I listened to the commentaries on the Caligula DVD. Fellini must have been a real wizard to successfully manipulate Bob Guccione into letting him make the film he wanted.

  8. It’s probably been mentioned here before but Novello really was expelled, from as a schoolboy from magdalen college school, apparently for a homosexual affair with a fellows student. The school still proudly mention him as an old boy but draw a veil over his exit….
    With Downhill I’ve always wondered whether Novello was risking this scandal from being brought to light? Why write a play about it, and then star in a big film? Was he brave or did he want to relive it?

  9. It’s a good question (and nobody had mentioned that before, so thanks!). Seems like it must have been a traumatic event for him, and so reworking it in dramatic form, with a happy ending, might be a way of coping with it. Ironically, homosexuality was so unmentionable that Novello was probably fairly safe from scandal — few newspapers would have “outed” him. It took something like the Wilde case to make headlines in pre WWII England, is my impression. Of course, he was risking prosecution with his love life, but scandal, perhaps not so much.

    But maybe somebody can prove me wrong.

    When Novello did face a scandal, ironically it was over black market ration books after WWII.

  10. Ozu was expelled for writing love letters to a fellow student. Allusions are made to this in a couple of his later films where the old men getting drunk at lunch recall their school days. As far as I knw this is theonly material about his own life that pops up in Ozu’s work.

  11. A great dream film is Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson.

  12. Perhaps this is an example of some of the Ellington the picture could use …

  13. Perhaps this is an example of some of the Ellington suited for Hitchcock’s film …

  14. I’d love to see that! My enjoyment of Hathaway varies, but he’s often very effective. And I’d be fascinated to see how he’d react to that material.

    The Ozu school ref may be the only specific reference to his biography, but I guess the films are imbued with what he loved: booze, sing-songs, certain kinds of landscape… assembled together, the films form a sort of incomplete self-portait. Soon: I Was Born, But…

  15. I have Peter Ibbetson on vhs tape. I could send it to you if you like? It’s a beautiful story about the power of love.

    but I guess the films are imbued with what he loved: booze, sing-songs, certain kinds of landscape
    Ozu was obviously a man of great sensibility and joie de vivre.

  16. Great! I just mailed your care package, can get you a second batch together if you want The Hard Way sometime. I haven’t got my hands on that one yet.

  17. […] Things Shadowplay read off the screen in Downhill […]

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