Hitchcock had no problem throwing Ivor Novello under a bus for this one (of the source material, Down Hill, by Novello and Constance Collier, under the nom de plume Julian L’Estrange, he said “It was done as a series of sketches. It was a rather poor play” and “the dialogue was pretty dreadful in spots”). Downhill makes for an overlong, plodding melodrama concerning unjustly expelled school boy Roddy (Novello), who embarks on a bleak but instructive rite of passage before finally having his world righted, Job-like.
At least, that’s how I, and I’m sure most people, read it. Time Out’s Bob Baker suggested that “Finally he is (or hallucinates that he is) transported back to London and into the apologetic arms of his family”. To see the voyage home as a hallucination would be to argue for a hallucination within a hallucination (there are several such during his journey), which I feel fairly certain wasn’t the intention.
Baker also argued Downhill was much more Novello than it was Hitchcock, suggesting a litany of his “gay motifs: brutish father, voluptuous victimhood, bloody women”. Although, untrustworthy women is hardly an element uncommon to Hitch’s later oeuvre. Nor is being falsely accused of a crime.
Downhill is ignited by waitress Mabel (Annette Benson) accusing Roddy of knocking her up (this isn’t stated explicitly); in fact, it was Roddy’s chum Tim (Robert Irvine) who did it, since both of them were carrying on with her (although, one gets the impression only Tim was intimate). Being a dashed noble sort, Roddy takes the rap for the act. Pops Sir Thomas (Norman McKinnel, a particularly unwelcoming dad) is having none of it when he protests his innocence, so the understandably aggrieved Roddy takes off.
He proceeds to get a job as a chorus boy. Then he comes into a legacy of £30k (about £1.8m, adjusted for inflation), but being a prat, he duly fritters it away, marrying gold-digger actress Julia Fotheringale (Isabelle Jeans). Who, being another deceitful woman, continues seeing her leading man Archer (Ian Hunter). Roddy isn’t at rock bottom yet, however, since his next wrung down is working as a gigolo in Paris, servicing older women. He ends up in Marseilles, where a couple of (possibly) sympathetic sailors ship him home, to his welcoming father (Sir Thomas has discovered Roddy was innocent in the meantime).
All very torrid, but during the first half at least, reasonably engaging. Hitch indulges a few humorous conceits that function as a portend of things to come; Mabel, who works in Ye Olde Bunne Shoppe (!) puts on a record called I Want Your Money when the boys arrive. Later, when Fotheringale sprays perfume on the photo of Archie on her dressing table, Hitch cuts to the actual Archie in the same pose. There’s also a deep focus of Archie using a soda syphon, with Roddy in the background, as if to say “he’s a little squirt” (or something more suggestive). Also notable on the Hitchcock pets count is a cat, scared off by a thrown hat. The director criticised his “naïve touch” visually, that “To show the beginning of his downhill journey, I put him on an escalator going down”.
Naïve touches aren’t really the issue with Downhill, though. Roddy’s descent is laborious and tonally repetitive, without enough of the director’s leavening influence at play. Notably, Novello was 34 playing 17, an age gap even greater than Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. Irvine was, by comparison, a relatively age-appropriate 26.