September 3, 2020
Downhill – UK, 1927
Who do you think would say the following: “This girl has brought a charge…a serious charge.” If you’re like me, you would probably guess someone with the power of the law behind them, like a policeman or a judge. Would you believe the line is spoken by the headmaster of a boarding school? Let me explain the situation. See, after leading his rugby team to victory, a young man named Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello) is invited to call upon a young waitress after hours. Actually, the invitation is extended to his friend Tim Waverly (Robin Irvine) as well, and it must be said that Tim seems much more excited about it than Roddy. The young lady (Annette Benson), however, is a lot more interested in Roddy, but perhaps she’ll settle for Tim. At the scheduled rendezvous, there’s the kind of music that causes your body to instantly start shaking, rattling, and rolling. The young woman leads Roddy into a private area, but he rebuffs her unspoken invitation to move to first base. Frustrated, she then dances with Tim, and his reaction is quite the opposite. Perhaps out of spite, she invites Tim to return at a later date for a little more running around the bases, which he does.
Some time later – the film does not specify exactly how much – the two buddies are summoned by their headmaster, who utters those ominous words referenced above. Yet let’s stop and ponder that for a moment. Why both of them? At this point, the audience has no reason to question this, but as events unfold, the quandary grows, and the answer becomes increasingly incredulous. For in the Headmaster’s office is the aforementioned young lady, and she has indeed brought a charge. She then precedes to spell out the events of that frustrating night, events that I should remind you the audience saw in real time not five minutes earlier. The Headmaster hangs on her every word, responding with heartfelt empathy and a stern look at the two young men in his care. And then he asks…Which boy was it?
So, let us get this straight. The young lady went to the Headmaster and said she had a complaint about one of his students. The Headmaster didn’t ask what the complaint was or who she was leveling a complaint against. He just brought her in, summoned two possible offenders, and then asked her to tell her side of the story? Apparently so. I watched this scene twice, the second time after I’d finished the film, and it made even less sense the second time around.
Now in the days of silent film, audiences would often play a game. They would try to read the performers’ lips to see if what they said during filming matched either the intertitles or the plot. Often it didn’t. Not being a lip-reader myself, I could not tell just what words the young lady used when hurling her accusation, but if we are to believe what Hitchcock chose to show in the flashbacks, it involved dancing, an innocent exchange of money made scandalous, and the following get-together. Then, in another head-scratching moment, the Headmaster demands to know just whom she is leveling charges toward. She points to Roddy. She later mentions that he is from a rich family and says that they’ve go to “see me through this.” Whether this means childbirth or an abortion is not made clear. And the character doesn’t stick around to explain herself. Her tearful accusation is the last time we see her in the flesh.
So, Downhill is the tale of an innocent man whose future is ruined by an evil, conniving woman with the help of a friend whose first impulse is to protect himself. Well, surely this has been a learning experience for Roddy, and he should now be equipped with the tools to protect himself from further financial predators. Ah, but that would require logic and perspective, two qualities that screenwriter Eliot Stannard apparently decided Roddy did not have. Consequently, we soon find him attempting to woo a famous stage actress (Isabel Jeans) who just happens to have a sugar-daddy who’s in the habit of spoiling her rotten. The jewels, the perfume, the fur coats, the older man – all of these things should have set off alarm bells, especially someone who’d previously been disowned by his father as a result of a rather immoral young lady. Alas, Roddy isn’t thinking with his head; he’s following his…well, I’m not exactly sure what he’s following, but whatever it is, it puts him on another path toward poverty. Poor guy. He just can’t seem to find a decent woman.
I know what you’re thinking. Soon he will. He just has to. I get this notion. This is Hitchcock after all, and almost all of his movies end with the budding of love or a romantic wedding. And truth be told, many of Hitchcock’s early movies had immensely sympathetic female characters. This, however, is not one of them. Downhill takes place in a world of women each after either the all-mighty dollar or unearned adulation, and the Great Depression hasn’t even started yet. Had the film been made just a year later, it might have been possible to see it as a commentary on the moral compromises people make during hard times. Instead, it comes across as more than a little sexist. No wonder Criterion offered it as a Special Feature: It’s hard to see anyone but the most die hard Hitchcock fans having any interest in it. (included on the Criterion Collection’s release of The Lodger)