Downhill

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”.

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6 Replies to “Downhill”

  1. I'm trying to figure out what it is about the concept of "silent" films that some in the audience here don't seem to understand…

  2. No musical score?  In the past 5 or 6 years I've seen close to 50 silent films and this is the very first one without any music at all.  Completely silent.  It's actually a distraction having no sound whatsoever.

  3. There wz sound in silent movies, the music in the background. Many silent movies lost their original score, to which another musical "sound" wz usually added. There were no "Talkies". Al Jolson made the first (1st) "Talkie". Many silent movie stars could not make the transition from 'silent' to ' talkies'. There wz sound, the music, but no talking.  Either the original score wz lost and nobody added their own choice of "sound" OR Hitch took this movie all the way – to, "a silent movie", with, "no sound", a'tall.
    IVOR, the lead, is an inCREDible actor!!! One must see him in Hitchs' "The Lodger". That wz Hitch's favorite movie of all time and IVOR, is incredible. His facial expressions, etc. He is a GEM!!

  4. Loved the movie, but would've liked to have seen "friend" & his hussy get their comeuppance. As far as the sound there never was any music per say for this film. Up until late 1927 films were made without sound period. When the film was played at the theater an organist or orchestra in some cases would accompany the film & play the music as the movie rolled. That is the reason for the absence of music. Any film with music is considered a talkie in it's truest sense. A good example of this is The Jazz Singer from 1927. Although it has music only it is considered a talkie because it has a musical score.

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