Downhill, otherwise known as “When Boys Leave Home” in the United States, is a silent film released in 1927 based on the play, Downhill. When released, it became the fourth film for the now renowned director Alfred Hitchcock. It is incredible to go back and see how Hitchcock’s style was evident in even his earliest films. Of course, as time went on and he grew as an artist, his styles would become cleaner and take on their most authentic form. However, going back and watching the early films is a treat to watch the growth throughout his career.
The film’s first title card explains to the audience that they are about to witness a bond between two best friends. Best friends that made a pact to look out for each other at all costs. It is a pact that one friend follows through with.
The audience is then taken to a rugby game in progress. The star player is the film’s main character. A young man named Roddy Berwick is played by Ivor Novello. Novello was also one of the writers for the play the film is based on. He wrote the play with Constance Collier. Novello was mainly known for his musical and playwriting abilities. Still, his acting skills can be witnessed in a handful of films, including Hitchcock’s other film, The Lodger, which came out the same year as Downhill.
After the rugby game, Roddy is carried away on the shoulders of his teammates. That is when the character of Tim Wakeley (Robin Irvine) is introduced. Tim is Roddy’s best friend and the one he made a pact with, a friend desperate to receive a scholarship to attend Oxford University. According to his father, it is the only way Tim will be able to afford the school. Tim then goes out to eat with his sister, where he is slipped a note from one of the servers, Mabel (Annette Benson), letting him know she will be alone later that night. From the look on Tim’s face, it is clear he is excited about this news! Roddy comes into the dining hall just as the prayer is beginning. Mabel tries to make him laugh while the prayer occurs, and his father happens to see this and is not pleased with him. Later that night, Roddy and Tim go to the shop that Mabel told them about where she would be alone. They start with some music, and soon Roddy and Mabel are dancing. After a customer comes into the shop, Roddy decides to step aside and let Tim try his hand at dancing with Mabel. The dancing leads to Tim and Mabel kissing. It was evident throughout this scene that Mabel would instead be kissing Roddy; however, he brushes her off, which angers her. When the boys leave the ship, she invites Tim to come back when the store is closed. Things really seem to be going great for this small group of young people.
A few days later, both boys are called into the headmaster’s office, where they find Mabel sitting and waiting. Mabel reveals to the headmaster that she is pregnant and that Roddy is the father. Tim is the real father but cannot say this because he would be expelled and lose his scholarship. In an attempt to live up to his pact with Tim, Roddy accepts the lie and is kicked out of school. Mabel says that Roddy’s father is “rolling in money. He has to see me through it,” revealing her actual reasoning for casting the blame on him.
Roddy is expelled from school and told to leave immediately. He leaves and goes back home, but he is met with upset parents, and his father refuses to believe he is innocent of the allegations. Frustrated that things are not going his way, Roddy decides to leave home. Not long after leaving home, Roddy becomes an actor at a local theater. Soon, Roddy receives a large sum of money after a family member passes away. Due to this influx of income, he catches the eye of the lead actress, Julia (Isabel Jeans), at the theater he is now working, and they get married. Things seem to be looking up for Roddy. However, Julia is not the most faithful wife and has a side relationship with another actor at the theater. Once Roddy spends all his money, it’s not long before Julia leaves him.
Now alone again and trying to figure out his place in the world, Roddy becomes a “companion” for older women. He is earning money but at what cost to his mental health. Because of this strain on his morals, he decides to leave this lifestyle. It doesn’t take long for him to hit complete rock bottom and become swallowed in a shadow of depression and self-loathing. When a group of people decides to help him get back home, he arrives to a father excited to see him. While Roddy was away, his father learned the truth about Mabel and regrated sending his son out.
One thing that stands out in this film is the lack of title cards throughout the story. Hitchcock used his attention to detail to allow the story to play out on the screen without the need for title cards. This was a bold attempt that ultimately paid off in the end. It allows the viewer to develop their own ideas about what is playing out on the screen while still having enough subtle cues to keep the story moving in the correct direction. This is such a great watch, even if the copy is not composed as mine was not. I would like to see the film with the original sound to see how it differs from my first experience.
Written exclusively for TheLastPicture.Show by Jacob Ruble
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