Patsy Brand is a chorus girl at the Pleasure Garden music hall. She meets Jill Cheyne who is down on her luck and gets her a job as a dancer. Jill is engaged to adventurer Hugh Fielding and... See full summary »
A slapdash early effort by young director Alfred Hitchcock, "Downhill" a. k. a. "When Boys Leave Home," delivers moments of brilliance undone by an underbaked plot.
Young Roddy (Ivor Novello) is expelled from his boarding school when he is charged with a major infraction involving a woman at a local bake shop. No use appealing to his father, who stares at him with frightening disgust. Roddy makes his way alone in life, coming up against a pair of theatrical con artists before landing in a seedy music hall, providing dances for lonely women at 50 francs a whirl. It all gets to be too much for the frail boy.
Poor Roddy can't catch a break, even in cyberspace. A lot of reviewers, both here at IMDb.com and elsewhere, have at the fellow for one deathless line he delivers when his headmaster drops the hammer: "Can I
Won't I be able to play for the Old Boys, sir?" It's a line dripping
with ingenuousness, but actually works better in context. Roddy is a true believer in the code of his school who runs up against a world that doesn't allow for second chances.
Based on an adaptation of a play Novello co-authored with Constance Collier under the pseudonym "David L'Estrange," "Downhill" pushes the action from one setpiece to another with little explanation or character development. Hitchcock seems far more enthusiastic about his set pieces and camera tricks than giving the viewer anything to hold onto. Even dialogue cards are kept at a minimum in this very non-verbal silent film.
The best sequence, a section called "The World Of Make-Believe," plunges Roddy into the harsh world of show biz, where conniving actress Julia (Isabel Jeans) and her significant other Archie (Ian Hunter) set up a suddenly cash-rich Roddy.
Watching Archie as Roddy pledges his love to Julia, smoking and drinking and looking frightfully bored as he awaits the chance to offer his casual blessing to their ersatz union, features terrific acting from all concerned. Hitchcock does well in this section by playing up the humor of the situation. But when it's over, there's no explanation or attempt at grounding things. What's this kid going to do about his new marriage? We just follow Roddy to his next stop on his downhill journey.
Hitchcock presents us with some arresting images. One favorite of mine shows a daytime view of Roddy's boarding school dissolving into a scene of London at night. Anyone curious at how England looked in the 1920s will enjoy these views for their travelogue value, anyway.
Novello is worthy, too, carrying the film as he must. He's too old for the part, but believably earnest even as he goes from bright student to all-around chump. A better film would give us more of a basis for this, but all we get is some eye fluttering from Novello to tell us of his deer-in-the-headlights state. It worked for Novello's female fan base at the time, but not for us.
Hitchcock too often works in this surface manner. He shrugs off any subtlety in pursuit of the big effect. The worst of these feature Roddy's father, Sir Thomas (Norman McKinnel), who bears a striking resemblance to Nosferatu and shows up late in the film in Roddy's wracked point-of-view in a slew of implausible guises.
Still, I was interested enough in Roddy's journey, if only as a matter of historical interest. Early on, we see he is the genuine article, a real believer in the world he inhabits, holding a cap emblazoned with the word "Honour." There's a scene, arrestingly similar to the deconstructive Lindsay Anderson film "if ", where Roddy and his friend meet that girl in the bake shop. No playing tiger in this one, Roddy just dances with the girl a little and tries to make a polite exit, but the damage is just as much as if he broke out the tommy guns like Mick and company in that later, anarchic classic.
"Downhill" is a coming-of-age movie that only really works as a look at Hitchcock's own coming of age before he arrived.
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