Downhill (released in the U.S. as “When Boys Leave Home”) is a 1927 silent film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on the play Down Hill. It is Hitchcock’s fifth film as director.
At an expensive English boarding school for boys, Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello) is School Captain and star rugby player. He and his best friend Tim (Robin Irvine) start seeing a waitress Mabel (Annette Benson). Out of pique, she tells the headmaster that she is pregnant and that Roddy is the father. In fact it was Tim, who cannot afford to be expelled because he needs to win a scholarship to attend Oxford University. Promising Tim that he will never reveal the truth, Roddy accepts expulsion. Returning to his parents’ home, he finds that his father (Norman McKinnel) believes him guilty of the false accusation. Leaving home, Roddy finds work as an actor in a theatre. He marries the leading actress Julia (Isabel Jeans) after inheriting £30,000 from a relation. The unfaithful Julia secretly continues an affair with her leading man (Ian Hunter) and discards Roddy after his inheritance is exhausted. He becomes a gigolo in a Paris music hall but soon quits over self loathing at romancing older women for money. Roddy ends up alone and delirious in a shabby room in Marseilles. Some sailors take pity on him and ship him back home, possibly hoping for reward. Roddy’s father has learned the truth about the waitress’s false accusation during his son’s absence and joyfully welcomes him back. Roddy resumes his previous life.
The film is based on the play, Down Hill, written by its star Ivor Novello and Constance Collier under the combined alias David L’Estrange. The stage performance had a short run in the West End and longer in the provinces. In the play Novello thrilled his female fans by washing his bare legs after the rugby match. An appreciative James Agate, drama critic for the London Sunday Times, wrote “The scent of good honest soap crosses the footlights”. Hitchcock included a similar scene of Novello for the film in which he is shown naked from the waist up.
Hitchcock’s emerging style is well demonstrated in this film. He used a variety of screen techniques to tell the story with a minimum of title cards, preferring instead to allow the film’s visual narrative tell the story. A good example is the scene after Roddy leaves home. It opens with the title card “The world of make-believe”. This is followed by a closeup of Roddy in a tuxedo. The camera pulls back to reveal Roddy is actually playing a waiter on stage in a theatre. Hitchcock also incorporated shots of a descending escalator at Maida Vale tube station as a visual metaphor for Roddy’s downhill descent. He experimented with dream sequences by shooting them in super impositions and blurred images. He played with shadow and light in much the same way as directors of German films of the time.*
The film has different names in various countries. The original UK title is “Downhill”. In the U.S. the film is known as “When Boys Leave Home”, in Germany the movie name is “Abwärts”, in Italy it’s “Il Declino”, in France it’s “C’est La Vie” and in Argentinia as well as in Venezuela the move is known as “Decadencia”.