After the critical and commercial success of The Lodger (1926), Gainsborough Pictures were keen to reunite director Alfred Hitchcock and star Ivor Novello. A convenient vehicle suggested itself in the stage play ‘Down Hill’, written by Novello with Constance Collier, under the combined alias David L’Estrange.
Downhill is one of the darkest of Hitchcock’s early films and follows the fall from grace of promising public-school head boy Roddy Berwick. It features a succession of predatory and manipulative female characters who torment Novello’s hapless young hero: the tuckshop girl who falsely accuses Roddy of fathering her child; the selfish and mercenary actress who marries him for his inheritance, then abandons him when the money runs out; the venal night club ‘Madame’ who exploits his penury by hiring him out to dance with her lonely, ageing clients. It’s not hard to imagine that the play reflects the experiences of Novello himself, a gay matinee idol oppressed by unwanted female attention. One might even include him in the lineage of Hitchcock blondes – imperilled and vulnerable and prey to the camera’s fetishistic gaze. We are used to seeing Hitchcock’s heroines in their underwear, but here we see Novello shirtless in an early scene. Later, in a gloriously Hitchcockian scene, we see him in a series of personas as the camera pulls back to reveal him firstly as a tuxedo-clad gentleman, then a waiter, then a petty thief, before we realise he is actually an extra in a west end musical, bobbing up and down with the rest of the cast in as humiliating a position as any chorus girl might have found herself. This is clearly the sensation that Hitchcock is trying to deliver: we are significantly more shocked at the maltreatment of a boy by scheming women than we are to a girl being similarly maltreated by men.
Hitchcock was characteristically disparaging about the film in later interviews, but Downhill is a deceptively rich and often elegant work and although he later found the descending escalator a clumsy symbol for Roddy’s downward trajectory, it works well in the context of the late silent movie of the 1920s and is echoed later in the film with his descent in a lift – the camera focusing on the ‘down’ button. Roddy hits rock bottom in a Marseilles dance hall being rented out to desperate middle-aged matrons for five francs a dance. At the end of the night, in which he appears at last to have found a sympathetic ear, the curtains are suddenly ripped open in a kind of reversal of the gloom of German expressionism, the ‘searching relentless sunlight’ exposing the sordid inhabitants. It is impressively unpleasant. Most striking is the nightmare scene in which the delirious Roddy, on a boat bound for home, sees hallucinations of his stentorian father as a policeman and his past tormentors gloating over the money they have made from him as if in some Dantean circle of hell. Inspired by his memory of stage lighting, Hitchcock had the sequence tinted a sickly green to express the character’s nausea and mental turmoil. Many years later, he would employ a similar device in Vertigo (1956).