A French intelligence agent becomes embroiled in the Cold War politics first with uncovering the events leading up to the 1962 Cuban Missle Crisis, and then back to France to break up an international Russian spy ring.
The Moliere players are in their dressing room, getting ready to go on set. One actor mentions to another that his face reminds him of an opportunist turncoat he knew when he was in the ... See full summary »
A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.
Alfred Hitchcock, despite all his ability, was undeniably a largely mechanical filmmaker. His approach was one of planning and manipulation rather than aesthetics or feeling. Not a bad thing in itself, so long as that cold mechanical mind could be put to the purposes of intrigue and excitement, as it would at the peak of his career. The trouble then with his earliest efforts is that they have all that technical intricacy without that much needed focus on reaching the audience as entertainment.
His silent films in particular seem to lurch all over the place, and are proof that the term "experimental film" generally means a bad one. After all, if you know how to do it properly you don't need to experiment, do you? Downhill, unlike the films made immediately before and after, has less of the camera trickery that characterises Hitch's early work, the exceptions being a couple of mobile point of view shots in the Headmaster's office scene, and the rather extravagant finale, which believe me is nothing compared to the obtrusive bag of tricks Hitch employs in, say, Champagne (1928).
Instead, the director focuses far more on the expression and gesture of the actors and the cunning arrangement of shots to reveal what is going on. Much of this is technique that Hitch appropriated from screenwriter Eliot Stannard, who actually predates Eisenstein in theories of montage, and the various inserts of reactions and concurrent bits of business like the crosscutting from the courting couple to Ivor Novello dealing with the young customers in the shop scene seem to fit in with the theories Stannard set out in film articles in the 1910s. A more Hitchcockian manoeuvre on display here is the beginning of scenes with close-ups, with gradual pull-back-and-reveal shots to give context. Often the opening shot, focusing on a single character or an item like a cap with the word "honour" on it, serves almost like a chapter heading. Gradually the shots become wider, giving more context to the scene, often finishing with a hauntingly empty wide shot one that in another director's work might introduce a sequence. In one scene Hitchcock playfully confounds our expectations several times over, by starting with Novello in a posh outfit, pulling back to reveal he is in fact a waiter, then pulling back again to reveal the restaurant is part of a stage set.
This more subtle approach by Hitchcock is very welcome, but the trouble is he seems a little over-confident in his own abilities. Downhill contains very few intertitles, but the action is not quite coherent enough to make up for them. The shop scene in particular is very confusing, and synopsis writers cannot even seem to agree whether Novello is being falsely accused of stealing or getting a woman pregnant. The latter is less obvious but makes much more sense. The focus on people and their actions is a bonus at least, and we get to see a bit more character from Ivor Novello as compared to his rather leaden personality in The Lodger, but the handsome chappy still cannot really act. And it's nothing but mugging and crazy stares from the rest of the cast, I'm afraid.
But perhaps I am missing the point. The incident in the shop could be regarded as an early example of the "MacGuffin" an otherwise unimportant device which serves only to drive the plot forward and as such its details are of no consequence. And certainly, this rather trite plot of a man disowned by his family for some social misdemeanour, who descends the slippery slope until he ends up becoming a gigolo for fat French women is certainly one which could bear a bit of style over substance. And isn't it in some ways the essence of cinema to conjure up atmosphere or visual delight, with coherence and plot detail being of secondary concern? All this is true, and yet the purpose of a motion picture is to tell a story, whether it be the ostensible one of plot, or an emotional one at a more human, character-driven level, and this is something Downhill fails to provide.
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