Alfred Hitchcock is the best known film director of all time. But the films which he is known for – with the possible exception of ‘The 39 Steps’ (1935) – are those that he produced after moving to America in 1940. Yet even by the late 1920s, he was already the best known and most acclaimed director in Britain (Charlie Chaplin having already gone to work in America).
Through most of the 1920s, British cinema was being overrun by the dominance of the shiny, new spectacle of Hollywood. Britain had nothing to offer to rival its glitz and glamour.
Meanwhile, European cinema – which similarly could not rival the Hollywood swashbuckling extravaganza – set out to be innovative and revolutionary instead. This was particularly true in Germany, where filmmakers such as Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau led the expressionist movement, with a new style and inventing new techniques. Set design no longer had to be accurate, but reflected characters’ inner emotional turmoil, notably in Wiene’s remarkable ‘The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari’ (1920). Films should be visually interesting, going beyond plot, and stories should be told with minimal use of title cards (we are in the silent era of course), instead being told visibly, and avoiding direct explanation to audiences.
British cinema however, was stuck in the past. British films were typically not much more than filmed versions of plays. There was not much attempt at being visually interesting, and plots were made blatant to audiences.
Through this era of British cinema, Hitchcock worked his way up through a variety of studio jobs in Britain: title card designer, set decorator, editor, assistant director, and finally, director. During his time as a jobbing workman, he visited studios in Germany, and saw films by Fritz Lang, and saw F. W. Murnau in action on set. These experiences proved to be highly influential on his development as a director, teaching Hitchcock filmmaking techniques such as experimental camera movements, minimal use of set design and title cards, and thrilling plots.
But anyway. Back to Downhill. Not to be confused with Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004). If Hitchcock had predicted the final days of Adolf Hitler, then he really would have been ahead of his times.
Downhill meanwhile, was Hitchcock’s fifth feature film, following his debut ‘The Pleasure Garden’ (1925), the infamously lost ‘The Mountain Eagle’ (1926), his breakthrough, ‘The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog’ (1927), and boxing movie ‘The Ring’ (1927). But he was hampered by his own distributors who had disliked his ‘unusual’, ‘European’ methods, and had refused to distribute his first two films. It was only with ‘The Lodger’, and an ensuing fight involving film critic Ivor Montagu being brought in to make the case for Hitchcock, that any of his films were ever released.
Downhill stars Ivor Novello (named after the Awards ceremony), in an adaptation of a play he co-wrote. It charts the fall from grace of a schoolboy wrongly accused of impregnating a woman, and so is expelled. Even this early in his career, Hitchcock was making films about risqué sexual material. Notably, even as early as 1927, cinema still had the bad habit of using middle-aged actors to portray schoolkids – Ivor Novello was 34. Following his expulsion, Novello’s character begins a downward spiral that involves being an actor, a gigolo, and finally, worst of all, moving to France, where he falls into a state of poverty and delirium.
What is notable about the plot is that it is the first example of Hitchcock using a ‘wrong man’ as the central plot devise. He realised that a wrongly-accused individual was an excellent way to grip an audience, and was a device he would return to throughout his career, in films such as ‘The 39 Steps’ (1935), ‘The Wrong Man’ (1956), and most famously with Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill in ‘North By Northwest’ (1959). You could argue that his earlier film, ‘The Lodger’, also uses a ‘wrong man’ device, but unlike in Downhill, the audience is not aware of the character’s innocence until late in the film. Hitchcock had also intended for his guilt or innocence to be ambiguous, but was overruled by the studio.
Hitchcock excels at achieving excellent characterisation throughout Downhill. By a near-excessive use of close-ups, Hitchcock sticks the camera in his actors’ faces in order to capture their emotions and reactions. This is unlike films typical of this era in Britain, where mid-range shots were all-too-common. And there is minimal overacting, which could easily have spoiled the impact.
Close-ups were not Hitchcock’s only form of inventive cinematography. There are also zooms, cameras held on (Dutch) angles, and fades. These may seem mundane for modern cinema, but for the time, Hitchcock was borrowing from the most revolutionary of filmmakers. Also stolen imitated from other leading European filmmakers were minimal set design, with often entirely blank walls and rooms, and playing around with sepia and blue-tinted colour schemes.
In Downfall, there are however, signs that Hitchcock had still not fully escaped some of the poorer elements of ‘traditional’ British cinema. There are a few too many scenes which are long and drawn-out, lacking on real drama, yet still heavy on conversation – something very difficult to pull off excitingly in silent cinema. But what is crucial is that while Hitchcock is adapting this play, he is not merely sticking a camera in front of the actors. He is experimenting, and trying new effects, which would all help to pay off in his long term development. This is why Hitchcock was so exciting during this period of his career, and why more attention should be paid to these films.
Subsequently to Downhill, Hitchcock continued to work exceptionally hard – five more films in 1928 and 1929. But more importantly than his quantity, was his continued enterprise into the unknown of cinema. For instance, he was the first British film director to experiment with the new-fangled invention of ‘sound’ in Blackmail (1929).
Downhill is certainly not Hitchcock’s best film of this era, and is still one largely to recommend only to Hitchcock enthusiasts and completists. But it is emblematic, not only of his evolution as a director, but of the British film industry’s advancement as a whole, and Hitchcock was central to that.