Sharing the same star and scriptwriter as The Lodger, Downhill is an interesting companion-piece to its more lauded predecessor. They were made consecutively, though this was released a couple of weeks after last week’s The Ring- hence I regrettably viewed them out of order of production. In Downhill, Ivor Novello returns to star; not so much a wrong man in the classic Hitchcockian sense, more a wronged one. In high contrast to his sinister turn in The Lodger, Novello’s character is principled, but naïve and these twin traits drive the plot. As we meet him, he is a rich man’s son, captain of his school and hero of the rugby team. Circumstances lead him to encounters with people who take advantage of him until his descent takes him to a Marseille dockside, a failed gigolo, penniless and losing his mind (but always clean-shaven; imagine looking as dashingly handsome as Novello does here if you were at your lowest ebb):
In the Marseille scenes we can again see how these early works are a clear precursor to Hitchcock’s later masterpieces. Note how a delirious and destitute Novello hallucinates that the ghosts of his past surround him. We have seen this before of course- the memory of a drowned girl haunting her murderer in The Pleasure Garden- but the device is far more successful here. The visions are not presented as ghostly spectres, nor is the visual language of a flashback employed, but they appear as real to us as they do to the protagonist and it is this powerful blending of the real and illusory which would be used so effectively in Vertigo and Rear Window amongst others.
Recurring throughout the film are two visual motifs- firstly, of circularity and everything coming around again (most notably in the record player which is superimposed at various points), but also more prominently of descent: each time Novello’s character hits a pivotal point in the plot, he is seen to descend (a staircase, an escalator, a hill, a gangplank). It’s pretty unsophisticated stuff- he even introduces the character who would turn Novello’s world upside-down by showing her viewing him upside-down!- but underscores Hitchcock’s desire to tell the story through imagery as far as possible (there are very few title cards on show).
My favourite moment in the film sees us catch up with Ivor Novello just after he has left home, indignant with his father who refused to believe his innocence. He looks dashing in white tie and seems to have landed on his feet somewhere, but as the camera pans out we see that he is waiting tables in an expensive-looking coastal restaurant. The couple he is serving leave behind a cigarette case and he motions to alert them, but stops short and slides the case into his pocket. The camera pans out still further and we see that the action has taken place on a theatre stage in which Novello is a bit part actor. Barely five seconds has passed but we have been wrong-footed twice. It is sublime.
The ending, however, is contrived and unsatisfactory. After a perfunctory scene in which Novello is reconciled with his chastened and apologetic father, the film ends, as it began, with Novello scoring a game-winning try for his school’s (old boys) rugby team and thus the circle is complete. It’s not a great film, but there’s plenty to enjoy and admire. It’s well worth an hour or so of your time.