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Downhill (1927)

Just finished up a first draft of a feature script I'm working on so finally have time to do another post.

This is another silent film with Ivor Novello starring it in, this time playing Roddy, a boy who sticks up for his friend, accused of impregnating a waitress (Annette Benson). Roddy blames himself for the pregnancy, and goes from head-boy to being expelled, leading his father to kick him out. Roddy's life turns more and more miserable but all ends well for him as he is finally sent home on a boat, where he's welcomed back to his family. Reminded me of a Sullivan's Travel's type of story—Rich white boy gets poor. If anything I feel like Sullivan's Travel's makes fun of a story like this.

Besides the cultural implications of the plot, it was a very well told story but I wouldn't say it was very "Hitchcockian" (I think people say that?) The story ended on an uplifting note, and while it was about a misunderstood man, there was no mention of death at all or any suspenseful bomb-under-the table type mislead. It was a very linear story with one scene following the next in succession, like Huck Finn or Candide). There weren't very many flagship characteristics that we associate with Hitchcock and it seemed as though not a hugely experimental film visually. This leaves the dream sequence and some dark moments to be an exception to that rule. Communicating that Roddy was dreaming was accomplished by using shots with sweeping camera moves, simple but effective and contrasting to the rest of the film, which had little camera moves. That's comparing it to nowadays, where cameras move a lot more and are more aggressive due to technological advances. To sell the dream, Hitchcock also uses a green tint on the film which suggests that its not of this world— a very clever, economic way to represent the dreaming. Also a quick note, in the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, I remember Hitchcock bashing a directorial decision he made early on to have a character descend and escalator to show sadness. I think it was this film he was talking about—and not just a scene with an escalator but another scene where he descends an elevator too. I actually liked those decisions, because they reach represented a new chapter in this characters journey, and each chapter got worse and worse. Though I understand why he would see it as a first-time director mistake.

One more thing I noticed about this film was how well it uses the silent medium as a challenge to figure out the best way to tell a story. In the case with Roddy taking the job as a gigolo, we don't see much of the beginning or middle of the story, but starting more at the end, where we see him leave. In silent films, it'd be harder to make more of a moment out of the whole thing and have the tension slowly rise, because small changes like that are hard to pull off without words. So this medium truncates it and opts to start more towards the end of the story beat. Often times I write and try to achieve subtle changes with character, and sometimes fall into the trap of actually having nothing going on at all. Downhill is a good study in how quickly a director can tell a story, and suggest a bigger moment out of it rather than showing it explicitly. Going back to the gigolo sequence, there is no beginning scene where Roddy is reluctant to take the gigolo job, instead, we start with him miserable as one and show up right before the exciting parts happen. As he said himself:

"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."

There are some very beautiful Caravaggio-esque shots in the impoverished home Ruddy stays towards the end of the film, with heavy tenebrism and only a single light source coming from a window. The lighting throughout was very well done.

Overall the film wasn't one of my favorites, but these early movies have been interesting, to see the progression of visual storytelling and watch it take root to later inform new works.

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