Downhill (1927) March 24th, 2020
I made a big stink about not wanting to watch more Hitchcock in the previous post, but this is how The List works. It’s difficult for me to enjoy a movie if it’s outside the parameters of The List. This gnawing plague-rat of an idea scrapes the back of my skull with it’s inceptive teeth. “I wonder if I would’ve seen any influences of Downhill in this movie had I watched Downhill first?” It’s true that Downhill, like The Lodger, wasn’t on The List a few days ago, but that was before I knew they were only a couple of mouse clicks away (thanks to the Criterion Channel). I know in my heart I’ll watch another talkie, another film with a different director, heck maybe a musical one day. Not today. Today we’re firmly in the grip of Hitch.
The opening scene of Downhill is a huge high school age rugby game at a boarding school or private school of some kind. The sequence impressed me. It looked modern somehow. It’s a simple shot but it looked like something I would see on a network show like Modern Family. I really don’t know what it was, but I was suddenly struck by the realization that everyone on the screen was dead. Not like Lost where it’s presumed everyone died in the initial crash, there’s nothing subliminal that clued me into this being a phantom scrimmage. It’s just that the movie is 92 years old. Everyone in this movie is dead now. Then something occurs to me which I know has occurred to many people smarter and more insightful than myself countless times in the last 100 years. Yes they’re all dead, but they’re also kind of immortal. At least their reflections are preserved for eternity. Like a fossilized shadow waiting for someone to put light to it. The tracks of ghosts. That’s what all movies will eventually become. Watching the shadows of cinema’s past helps me appreciate the living artists we have today. That’s just another perk of The List. It’s morbid but I think it’s romantic. Well this got sappy and boring and dumb. On to the movie.
Downhill came out a few months after The Lodger in 1927 and also stars Ivor Novello. How about that? Starring in two silent-era Hitchcock films in one year, that’s quite the accomplishment for a ghost. The plot synopsis goes as such: the school rugby star and a friend meet up with a woman after a match. They dance after hours at the sweets shop where she works. Dancing seems to be a metaphor. Some days later the two boys are called into the headmasters office where the woman is waiting to explain that she’s pregnant and it’s the lead, Roddy’s child. It isn’t, she’s lying, it’s the other guy’s kid. But Roddy’s father is rich. She thinks he’ll make life easier for her. Roddy is subsequently kicked out of school and leaves his father’s mansion disgraced. From here on out it’s like Candide, just depressing misfortune after misfortune. Roddy ends up working as a theater actor making almost no money and resorts to pocketing things from the set. He comes into money only to have a beautiful woman steal it away from him. He takes a job as a taxi dancer and implied gigolo before becoming ill. His condition worsens to the point where his caretakers decide the best option is to abandon him on a ship headed for London. His voyage is plagued by fever dreams and hallucinations before making port and stumbling to his father’s door. What reception does he receive? That I’ll not spoil.
Downhill is enjoyable if not plagued with plot holes. It never ceases to amaze me that a man so lauded for his attention to visual detail and keen understanding of what unnerves people is so consistently unconcerned with rational and realistic motivation. Why don’t the parents in The Man Who Knew Too Much go to the police when their daughter is held for ransom? They already lost her, if they’re so convinced that her kidnappers would kill her if they go to the police then logically what assurance do you have that she’ll be alive if you don’t? At least if you go to the police you have the support of people whose job it is to find the kidnapped and deal with hostage negotiations. But that’s not what Hitchcock would do because Hitch doesn’t trust police. In The 39 Steps, how could the spies/murderers call Hannay’s apartment from the payphone on the street if they stabbed Miss Smith just moments before she walks to Hannay’s bed with a knife in her back? You’ve got to be at arms length to stab someone in the back, not two stories down and across the street. What if there were two killers? THERE WERE! And why wouldn’t they just walk across the room and kill Hanney too? They were right there, they knew he was there too, THAT’S WHY THEY CALLED HIM!
Alfred Hitchcock once called me a moron. It was right after I watched 39 Steps and I was raising the preceding points and then while Hitchcock was talking to François Truffaut on a special feature he said something along the lines of American audiences have “moronic logic” because they want to believe the story they’re being told. I took this personally. Mostly because I don’t disagree with him. I do want plausibility in films that sure as shit look like they’re going for realism. I don’t think the audience is somehow at fault for wanting to suspend disbelief for the duration of the picture. I’d say that’s a fool’s errand when watching something like The Hobbit or The Matrix, not in a pulpy early noir-esq spy film. Or in the case of this blog, Downhill.
The problems of Downhill are related to time. I will try to avoid spoilers of the final moments and resolution of the film but suffice to say the main character goes through what look like years of experiences in a matter of maybe months but because time isn’t acknowledged it could be days. The best way I’ve coped with how much exposition Hitchcock seems to leave in his gutters is that he must not’ve felt that way. He must’ve had such a wildly different mindset from my own that all of his characters actions and plot developments were completely justified to him. Otherwise he would’ve fixed it, right? So maybe I’m not a moron, but I’m also not a genius. I can live with that because I don’t have a choice. That’s plausible right?
Consider how his audiences would have seen this film: they would have been in a theatre, probably with live music accompaniment, able to TALK to each other about what they were seeing. I think Hitchcock and other directors of the time understood that people would naturally fill in whatever blanks there may have been with each other. You could literally yell, “Don’t open that door!”, and most of the audience would be with you, unless the scene was two otters swimming in a river. They could also make assumptions about character motivation and background because there wasn’t time to write it all on a title card. I think this is why Hitchcock was so dismissive of his Talkie audiences when they complained. He may have felt he was still giving them the opportunity to invest a little of themselves in the story. Yes, the actors were telling, but he was showing. He wanted us to (quietly, now) fill in the blanks the way his earlier audiences did. So, the next time you’re watching a Hitchcock film and his character is walking alone down a country road, you can think to yourself, “(Don’t open that door!)”, and you’ll be interacting with the great man himself – the way he intended.