A Year with Hitchcock: Downhill, by Reed Lackey

26 Jan

Downhill is another early Hitchcock film – released in the US as When Boys Leave Home, under which it is most easily located – that wouldn’t classify at all as suspense (although it does maintain a certain ominous tone).

It’s a small character piece about a man who takes the blame for his brother’s wrongdoing (and suffers a variety of societal troubles as a result). It stars Ivor Novello (who played the lead role in The Lodger and actually wrote the play upon which this film is based). The story takes his character through a variety of jobs, a few relationships, and even a stint as a homeless vagrant. However, for all of the travels the story takes our hero through, he frustratingly ends up very much where he began, with no characters including himself having learned terribly much about the experiences. As a narrative it’s pretty innocuous and as a technical achievement it’s rather pedestrian. There are a small handful of notable shots and, as previously mentioned, the tone is effectively ominous throughout the film. But ultimately, this film does not hold up well.

Where this assessment ultimately lands is that the film is neither terribly boring enough to deride or terribly interesting enough to recommend. Following the first thread we saw of this trope in The Lodger, this is the first official instance of the “wrong man” concept wherein we the audience are aware of the injustice throughout the narrative. Unlike The Lodger, which spends most of its run time bouncing between speculation and suspicion about the innocence or guilt of the titular character, Downhill presents a man wrongfully accused, and struggling to endure and survive the consequences of that wrongful accusation.

It’s a theme which Hitchcock presents here in a very underdeveloped fashion. While the initial self-sacrifice of the main character begins compellingly enough (with one of the film’s most elegantly constructed sequences), it quickly dissolves into far-fetched melodrama.

This film ranks among one of Hitchcock’s first genuinely disappointing experiences (and sadly it wouldn’t be the last one). While The Pleasure Garden is certainly not highly recommendable, it was surprisingly engaging. Meanwhile, The Lodger and The Ring both have merits on either narrative or technical levels worth discovering (if only for the more serious fans).

But Downhill quickly becomes tedious. The protagonist isn’t likable enough for us to admire his plight and the surrounding characters range from perplexing to annoying. The sense of nobility and admiration we should perhaps feel at his character’s punitive surrogacy yields to a sense of irritation when considering how much he endures for the sake of a family that seems to care very little about its members. At the very least, one would hope that the characters walk away with some sense of change or lessons learned, but sadly this is not to be found either.

Hitchcock wasn’t terribly fond of this film either (save for a couple of noteworthy technical moments) and I have to say I concur with his assessment.

Accessibility – Available on several low-budget DVD collections (mostly listed as When Boys Leave Home)
Themes – Societal Inequality, Youthful Folly, Accused Innocent Men
Category – For Completists Only

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