And now the long slog begins.
We descend downhill through the mostly weak and almost all non-suspense films that constitute Hitchcock's work through the remainder of the 1920s.
Having had a critical and commercial success with The Lodger, Hitchcock's next film is Downhill, an adaptation of a play by that film's lead, Novello. Did Hitchcock wish to continue to work with the stage and screen star? Hitchcock, despite what the composer David Raksin once said in a documentary, appears to be prefer and rely on consistent collaborators. Downhill is adapted by Eliot Stanard, Hitchcock's long term screenwriter in his silent years, and other regulars contributed to the narrative and its realization. Hitchcock, who had moved on to another studio, returned to Gainsborough to finish this film, which was in need of a director. In later years, he allowed as how he disliked the material and the resultant film.
As in some subsequent films, Downhill follows the education of someone who is flung out of his comfortable world. Another early example is Rich and Strange, in which a bored middle class couple welcome adventure only to strain their marriage before returning to their former life. In the case of Downhill, it is Roddy Berwick (Novello), happily ensconced in a school (one that anticipates If …) where he is a rugby star and is made the class captain. His friend, Tim Wakeley (Robin Irvine), however, has fallen in with a shop girl, and later out of a strangely motivated ire (Roddy has rejected her), she accuses Roddy of getting her pregnant. Roddy, who is from a wealthy family, chooses to take the rap, so that his friend can received a much needed scholarship to attend university without scandal. Returning home, Roddy is banished from the household by his father, and then begins a series of adventures, first in the world of entertainment. His ups and downs include working in a lowly capacity in a theater where he meets Julia (Isabel Jeans), a goldigger he marries after inheriting several thousand dollars, and working in a French dancehall as a gigolo. Next he ends up in Marseilles, ill and alone in a shabby room. Sailors take pity on him and help Roddy return to England. In the end, a debased and delirious Roddy finds his way home, where his father now asks for forgiveness and welcomes him back.
In his book on Hitchcock, Murray Pomerance notes that "descents" in Hitchcock usually lead to a replica of hell. Berwick experiences what is perhaps meant to seem like a series of unfair adventures that trap him a living hell, and images of descent – elevators, escalators, and including a remarkable handheld shot traveling subjectively down a gang plank – underscore his downward trajectory at transitional moments. The film is full of staircases, as are most Hitchcock films.
The apparent theme of the film is the price of loyalty – Roddy takes a bullet for his friend only to have his life ruined – and its consequences, but it could just as easily be about the unpreparedness of the upper classes for real life (a variation on the theme of Full-Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, and other Kubrick films). Another element is the cruelty of authority figures. First the headmaster, looking gaunt and judgmental like a character out of Dreyer, expels Roddy, and then his own father follows suit. Hitchcock's films frequent feature harsh adult males, and one is reminded of his oft told story of being sent to the police station to endure a few minutes of cell time for some minor home infraction. One thinks yet again of the crofter in The 39 Steps. Another theme could be the inefficiency of class intermingling. After his adventures down and out, Roddy returns to the family fold and even plays rugby for his school again. Like Prince Hal, he accepts the aid of the lower orders as his due, and it is not clear what the film's attitude is toward this, especially given that most of the women in the film are portrayed as untrustworthy and most of the men as crooks. Did Hitchcock "understand" the aristocratic milieu any more than the lowlifes, full of unpleasant stereotypes, of the Marseilles docks?
As with Hitchcock's other silent films, it is dying for sound, beginning with a whistle blowing, and including many scenes set to unheard musical accompaniment. To compensate, he employs a few visual tricks, such as the now patented Hitchock technique of alternating between an advancing subjective camera with back tracking shots of the person seeing. When Roddy is first banished from his home, a close up of him in evening wear pulls back to reveal that he is a waiter, and pulls back further to show that he is a waiter in a music hall show. Later, when the actress he marries sees him enter her dressing room, she sees him upside down, like Ingrid Bergman seeing Cary Grant in Notorious, and a similar scene in Rebel Without a Cause. The shopgirl has a parlor in the back of her shop where she lures her victims, like Norman Bates in Psycho, and the shopgirl's trashiness and attention deficit disorder when it comes to her beau anticipates the murdered wife in Strangers on a Train. Various meals are rendered, always important in Hitchcock as indices of class and character.
The shop girl's charge is vague, but other commentators say that she is accusing Roddy of getting her pregnant. Whatever the cause, it sends Roddy on a journey of identity. The successive stages of his descent strip further security from him and challenge who he is. In the end, though, the journey is a diversion. He ends up where he began, at home and school. His decisions – to marry the actress, to not be a gigolo – do not enhance his identity but are simply way stops on his return trip. He doesn't "learn" anything from his experiences, he merely retracts into what he was before, unseasoned and unweathered. The only hint of his woes to come occurs in the scene in the shop where, taking the place of the shop girl for a second while she dallies with Tim, Roddy takes charge of the store, messing up the money offered, which he doesn't recognize, and causing more chaos. Though the scene is played for laughs, such as they are, the sequence does speak to the problems Roddy is going to have with money when he is out on his own. One unclear plot point is why Roddy takes the jobs he does out in the real world. There is nothing in his "school days" to indicate that he would naturally gravitate to the music hall or the dance floor. This lack of felt motivation hints at Hitchcock's lack of interest in the essential story, which is more likely guided by Novello's interests, just as many of the shots are driven by the need to highlight his profile.
Hitchcock students will get very little out of Downhill and general viewers nothing at all. Hitchcock was right, in this instance.