Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
I can already tell that picking movies for this project is going to be challenging. Sometimes it’ll be easier because I have something special I want to talk about, and maybe there’s a film that lines up with it. Other times, like this week, I basically pointed randomly at a list of Hitchcock films.
Actually that’s not quite accurate; more than almost any other director, Alfred Hitchcock has the most films with name recognition. But I’m guessing still less than half of his films would be recognizable to the general public. My goal here is to keep you reading and interested (yes, I know writing 3,000 words on Hitchcock’s “worst” movie might not be the best way to achieve this), and I feel that a mix of well-known and lesser-known from week to week will help with that.
So for week four, having just talked about Rope, I wanted to go with something more obscure, specifically a silent film. Hitchcock started his career directing films in Britain in 1925, just a few years before talkies would arrive, although he did start his career in film illustrating intertitles, the descriptive cards that would show dialogue or flowery descriptions of what’s happening in the narrative.
I knew I didn’t want to do one of his better silent films (The Lodger stands out among these), so I more or less randomly picked Downhill. I remember seeing it in New York with a live piano accompaniment, and the only thing that stood out was a very literal moment that Hitchcock himself makes fun of in later interviews: as a young man is beginning his life’s descent after being expelled from a private school, Hitchcock shows a long shot of the man despondently taking the escalator into a tube station, literally heading “downhill.” Get it?! These are the kinds of things that stand out to you when you’re first getting into film because they’re obvious symbolism and they make you feel like you’re in on the joke. Hitchcock was rarely subtle, but even for him this is a bit on the nose.
I was excited to see Downhill again. I spent some time trying to find a good copy to watch; the copies on Youtube are literally silent, which is a slog (I ended up renting it on Amazon and enjoying an excellent piano accompaniment by John Sweeney). Almost from the inception of moving pictures, films were never shown silently. Larger Hollywood and prestige films would have scores composed for them, which would be played by a live orchestra or piano player. This was difficult and too expensive for most theaters, so the majority opted to have a pianist or organist on staff to accompany the films live. If a pianist was playing along to the film for weeks at a time, they learned the rhythms and pacing of the movie, sometimes incorporating bits of popular songs or other music when it was appropriate. It’s an almost lost art, and something I’ll talk more about in later weeks.
Another technical note on the Amazon print, and I’ll try to make this quick. Have you ever seen a clip from a silent film and the motion is herky-jerky and looks like it’s recorded at fast speed? Before the advent of talking films and the standardization at 24 frames per second, many silents, including Downhill, were shot at variable speeds, and projected the same way. Downhill looks to me to have been shot at around 18-20 frames per second. That means that if you run that film through a modern 24 fps projector, it’s actually running too fast. Downhill shows up on Youtube at around one hour and 20 minutes, and it’s hard to watch because it’s so sped up. The Criterion version on Amazon is the same film but it clocks in at one hour and 50 minutes, 37% longer, because they corrected for the frame rate.
So blah blah nerdy tech talk. Well, yes and no. Yes, this is nerdy tech talk. But it’s also important because it affects the performance of the actors and the rhythm & pacing of the scenes. When actors are jumping around the screen in that exaggerated fast-pace that we associate with silent comedy, it’s hard to communicate any kind of pathos or generate any real feeling, especially in a melodrama like Downhill.
As I’m re-reading this now, I’m struck by my need to constantly qualify if something is too nerdy or techy. I guess my expectation is that if it’s something I’m really interested in, like the frame rate of old silent films, then you, the audience, will think it’s too nerdy or stupid.
I’m sure this has to do with growing up nerdy, and I don’t mean nerdy in the sense of The Big Bang Theory or being really into the new Marvel movies or Game of Thrones. I’m talking old-school nerdy, where you’d watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and then talk to your high school buddies about it the next morning. Wearing t-shirts with dinosaurs and fighter jets on them into high school. Going to an auto show to get your picture taken with James Doohan (Scotty from the original Star Trek) or a Star Trek convention where they showed the then-coveted “blooper” reel that’s now easily accessible on Youtube. Making notes during every episode of Green Acres on Nick at Nite so you could write your own episode guide. Hell, I even wore a t-shirt with a giant Princess Leia face on a first date; not because I didn’t think about it, but because I thought my Princess Leia t-shirt would appeal to the ladies.
I had friends in high school who shared my interests, but just barely. Then I got to film school, where nerdy interests aren’t just indulged, they’re encouraged. Every conversation is a nerd-macho game of oneupmanship over who’s seen Tetsuo the Iron Man or has knows more lines from Reservoir Dogs. It felt good to be included, but it was still hard to get any point across, because we were all yammering away. I know I was guilty of bending my roommate Steve’s ear over Hitchcock, Kubrick, and whoever else I was into at the time.
But still there was this sense that these are things you shouldn’t talk about. Or at least that’s what I was made to feel. A big part of this was from friends who would joke and make fun of me, maybe not intending to be mean, but making it clear that my interests weren’t theirs, and to stop it. Another big part of this came from my ex-wife. I’m not trying to slam her here; there were a lot of great things about our relationship, and I don’t bear her any ill will. But I still remember, clear as day, we were sitting on our porch, and for some reason I was talking about The Big Sleep and how not even author Raymond Chandler knew who had killed someone in his story. An arcane point, I’ll grant you, but I just remember her cutting me off, with an exasperated “MM-HMM,” and a look that said I’d told her this before.
Which I probably had. But some part of me crawled back into myself when that happened, the same way it did when friends made fun of me for getting too upset about perceived social ills, or kids in high school laughed at my Mystery Science Theater 3000 bumper stickers. It’s taken a long time for me to crawl out. But I’ve managed it because I like sharing things with the world, whether it’s rare 1960s soul music or silent film frame rates.
And yes: not everyone needs to know about my love of character actor Ward Bond. Or how the idea that white music and the blues came together to form rock & roll is essentially a falsehood (for that, see Preston Lauterbach’s The Chitlin Circuit and the Road to Rock & Roll). But I also have the right to love the thing things I love, and to share them with willing companions. A podcast I’ve recently discovered is stand-up comic Jackie Kashian’s The Dork Forest, where she interviews a variety of people about something they’re an expert on. Kashian takes joy in learning new things, but also in listening to someone who has that joy in their knowledge, in their subject matter, and in sharing that with the world. Because what’s more wonderful than sharing what you love? Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?
All of that said…Downhill is definitely not Hitchcock’s best work.
In 1925 Hitch shot The Lodger with British stage star Ivor Novello (it was shelved and not released for a year, whereupon it became a smash hit) so this was a high-profile reteaming for the two. It’s based on a play written by Novello (albeit under a pseudonym, along with Constance Collier who shows up as a dinner guest in Rope), which leads me to believe that not only was the film just an assignment, it was also one where star Novello was calling many of the shots.
It’s a convoluted plot, more a series of loosely connected vignettes, about Roddy (played by Novello), an eighteen-ish prep school boy from a well-off family. It’s worth recounting because it’s all so ridiculous. Roddy and his less-well-off friend Tim both visit with a waitress of loose morals, but when Tim gets her pregnant, she names Roddy as the father, knowing she can get money from his family. Roddy bravely takes the fall so his friend Tim won’t lose his scholarship (a decision that is hard to understand, because Tim is a real pain in the ass). Roddy’s family immediately disowns him and he “descends” (the escalator scene) into the worst possible job of low morals you can imagine: he becomes a theatrical actor.
Lots of old American & British movies require a bit of historical context to understand, but in the 1920s this baffles me. I can see how in the 1800s being an actor was still a lowly profession, leading me to think that maybe the play was set in an earlier time, but the costs of shooting it as a period film led to them simply setting it in the present day. Either way, Roddy falls in love with an actress who is also after nothing but money (there’s an unpleasant theme here), and although he gets a big inheritance, the actress squanders it all, hooks up with her old lover, and kicks him out. As I’ve said previously, Hitchcock was no feminist, but this is rare for him to have a film where all the female characters (except Roddy’s mother) are such unpleasant money-grubbing caricatures.
He descends even further until he’s working as gigolo in Paris, near the Moulin Rouge. It’s all very tame, although the film does capture a nice sense of desperation here, with older men and women pawing at younger boys & girls in a seedy ballroom with the windows drawn. In a scene that is both beautifully done and outrageously sexist, the windows are thrown open to bring in air for a choking patron and Roddy sees that the elegant woman he was beginning to confide in is actually a hideous OLDER WOMAN! This is a terrible bit of ageism & sexism that, unfortunately, is excellently executed, with a great reveal of sun creeping through the room and distorted shadows and bags on the poor woman’s face. Ugh.
Finally Roddy ends up half-dead in Marseilles where two sailors and an old woman find a letter of his and send him home in hopes of a reward. Strangely, one of the sailors is played by an uncredited man of of color, who is not treated like a stereotype; he’s just one of the characters. Yet the old woman is played by a white woman in blackface, one of the only occurrences of blackface in a Hitchcock film. This is a major plot point in a later film, so I’ll save my discussion of blackface until then, but suffice it to say, I’m not a fan.
After a shipboard journey where Roddy is tormented by visions of the grasping women and men who have tormented him on his trip he arrives back home and is accepted with open arms, ending the film somehow playing rugby for the old school again. Like I said it’s a doozy of a plot. I don’t excuse the sexism and racism of the film, although I will say this: if you’ve watched American and British films of the time, you’ll know that a lot of this is actually pretty tame. I’m always torn on this type of thing; historically in context, Downhill is actually not terrible racist, but on the surface of it, a character in blackface is simply unacceptable, always, period, no argument.
There are some redeeming moments in this melodramatic mess. In interviews Htichcock seems very proud of the dream sequences and Roddy’s visions on the ship. But to me, the best moment in the film comes after Roddy’s initial “descent.” The title card reads “The Land of Make Believe.” We see Roddy as a waiter, serving a couple. The scene is staged strangely, and the backdrop is patently false, a poor studio set. Yet as the couple starts to argue and the woman angrily leaves, the camera pans right and we see that the entire cafe is part of a giant stage set and that we’re in the middle of a theatrical production. To drive the point home, dancing girls enter, a song strikes up, and the entire cast, Roddy included, start a ridiculous dance number. It’s a brilliant sequence, the kind of rug-pulling that Hitchcock would later specialize in (I’ve isolated the clip, which starts with the escalator sequence, below).
Thinking about Downhill as a Hitchcock film, there’s not a lot of what we consider “Hitchcock” in it. No mystery, mistaken identity, murder, chase scenes, or any kind of suspense. Hitchcock directed 52 films and by my count, thirteen of those films don’t qualify as “Hitchcock” pictures. Most of them date from his silent & early talking period, with 1941’s Mr. & Mrs Smith as a notable anomaly.
Hitchcock’s first film in this suspense vein was 1925’s The Lodger, and he revisited it with the first British talkie, 1929’s Blackmail. Through the early 1930s he tried different types of films, until the success of The Man Who Knew Too Much cemented his reputation as a director who made “thriller” pictures. And he was certainly exceptionally gifted at this, as suspense & mystery films require careful planning and attention to detail. You can’t make it up as you go along, which is the exact opposite of how Hitchcock worked.
But that doesn’t mean Hitch wasn’t rankled by whatever labels were applied to him, mainly the “Master of Suspense.” Later in he life he would jokingly complain that he was pigeonholed, and couldn’t direct any other type of film. Which for the time, is actually pretty unusual, as most directors essayed all kinds of films. And while Hitchcock’s films often incorporated other stylistic elements (musicals, romantic comedy, action, adventure), he definitely felt trapped by his own success, once commenting “I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.”
So Hitchcock learned to live with his limitations, as it brought him fame, fortune, and an almost unprecedented amount of creative control. As much as he may have puffed about being typed in later years, I can’t imagine that he would have done anything differently.
As for me, I constantly struggle with feeling like I would have done something differently, hell, done everything differently. But that’s the past, and it can’t be changed. I can huff and puff about my cred of being a nerd back in the day, but the best thing for me to do is work to find people that like talking about things they’re passionate about, and find my audience of people who want to hear what I have to say. People like you, who’ve descended into Hitchcock with me, and for which I thank you.
Watch It: Downhill is streaming on YouTube and because it’s in the public domain, can also be downloaded in full at Archive.org. However neither of these come with a musical accompaniment, so I recommend the excellent Criterion version available to rent on Amazon streaming video, with score by John Sweeney
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