Thursday, October 13, 2011
Table of Contents
Like the American film industry, production and distribution at British International Pictures and Gainsborough Pictures occurred with assembly line efficiency. Audiences turned over their nickels, dimes, and quarters at an intense rate so the supply needed to meet the demand. Individual production budgets were smaller, sets were few and recycled, location shoots virtually non-existant, stories were kept short, and editing began the moment the exposed film was printed.
Today our favorite director's films release once every 18 to 24 months. It's not unusual for features to take almost a year to develop, then spent many months in complicated post production. But between 1927 and 1928, Alfred Hitchcock had a new film out every four months. He proved to executives he could run streamlined productions that found moderate box office success. He continued this pace right through 1931, after which he rarely made more than one film a year.
I'm sure that most artists would prefer more time to work through their creations, but it's debatable whether having that luxury would have benefited Hitch. For instance, he pushed out Dial M for Murder and Rear Window in the same year (1954), but it took him two years to release I Confess, his only (rightfully) dismissed film from the '50s. In 1955, he directed two films (To Catch a Thief and The Trouble With Harry) and three television episodes for a series he had created himself ("Alfred Hitchcock Presents"), while it took him over a year to complete Jamaica Inn. Never heard of Jamaica Inn? There's a good reason for that. I still haven't finished it myself.
After his success with The Lodger, Hitchcock was hired to direct four films over less than 16 months. Curiously, none of these were thrillers, horrors, or mysteries. By this date in the American film industry, directors were assigned to specific genres per their box office successes. Yet it would still be a few years before Hitchcock would be consistently hired for thrillers. Instead, over this 16 month period, he directed three dramas and a comedy.
Downhill (UK) or When Boys Leave Home (US) (1927)
(This film wasn't part of the cheapie Hitchcock DVD set that I'd picked up for this study. Instead it's available for viewing right on YouTube!)
After his friend impregnates a party girl, Roddy, a promising student from a wealthy family, takes the blame and is kicked out of his boarding school. His father then kicks him out of the house. A theatre's lead actress marries him when she discovers that he's inherited 30,000 from a relative. She spends all of his money, cheats on him, then ditches him. Roddy then becomes a escort/prostitute to earn a living. He winds up on the docks broke, starving, and insane. He stumbles home and is welcomed back by his father and the school who have learned that he was innocent of the original accusation.
First, the title. "Downhill" is appropriate, kudos to the UK distributors. There really is no story arc here, it's just downhill. The character is completely passive, continually getting beaten down by the world. The title that the American distributors gave it is "When Boys Leave Home", which is so wrong it's as if they never saw it before they named it. It's not about "boys", it's about one guy: a schoolboy played by a 34 year-old Igor Novello. And he doesn't leave home, he's kicked out of the house. That's the whole point of the first act. Why change it from "Downhill"? Did they think American audiences would expect skiing?
Aside from the cloying melodrama, lack of rounded characters, and no real story momentum, Downhill is the best of these four films. I'll focus on the positive elements.
Hitch's past experience as an art director shows. Every set is full of dimension, depth, and detail. Columns, arches, windows, bookcases, vertical lines, and boxes frame the continually trapped Roddy. There are also some nice effects shots -- upside down, diagonal, double exposures. They may be jarringly obvious, but they do serve the story. And there are also nice visuals of descent. Roddy rides an escalator downwards after being booted out of his house, then he takes the elevator down when he's kicked out of his marriage.
Hitch also introduces a repeating theme here: the flirtatious, scheming, backstabbing woman. We'll see this type of character reappear often throughout his silent films. I'm not sure what to make of it yet, it's unsettling to witness it so often. In "Downhill" both of the female leads flirt, consume, then destroy.
In fact the only person who is nice to Roddy is a transvestite. Yep, I'm saying it here. There's a tranny in this film and no one writes about this, yet. At the tail end of his male escort career, a "woman" invites him over to her table. Hitchcock's camera focuses on her masculine face, too much makeup, huge arms, hidden Adam's apple, distinct facial hair, and labored attempts to look ladylike. Before "she" asks him to dance, she expresses affection and concern for him. No one else does that. And it's actually kind of moving. And riveting. For a moment the film seems to poised to take risks. Then he ditches her out of disgust for himself. This viewer says :(
Easy Virtue (1927)
"I'm afraid that I have no eyes for anything but you."
That odd dialogue title card is the most memorable thing about this film.
Though it's based on a Noel Coward play, the story is piffle and even pains me to type it. C'mon Noel.
Larita marries a jerk, he catches her not cheating on him with an portrait artist. He divorces her and she gets publicly labelled a woman of easy virtue. Though it actually sounds like a positive thing presently, it was once shorthand for SLUT. Larita runs away to another town, marries a rich guy who takes her home to his manipulative hateful mother (future Hitchcock theme!). When Larita's easy virtue past catches up with her, she ends marriage #2 to allow that guy to marry the woman (Sarah) he really loves.
"Shoot! There's nothing left to kill!" Larita exclaims at one point. I would have shot her.
What I mean to say is, maybe if she died at the end the film would have been lent a degree of tragedy. Otherwise Larita's somehow both passive and accusatory, whiny and sullen. Husband #2 is constantly grumpy, dismissive, and never defends his wife. So yes, in addition to a weak narrative, the characters are not interesting.
There is some innovative cutting between the past and present in the first act. There are some heavy-handed eye-piece and tennis racquet effects that highlight trapped characters. Hitchcock shows some better instincts when instead of filming the proposal scene, he shows us a telephone operator listening in and reacting to it. Finally, there's this moment between Sarah and Larita at the very end of the film:
It's the most intimate moment in any of Hitchcock's films so far. It's a pity that these two don't wind up with each other at the end. Now THAT would be a great twist.
......Goodness, there are two films left AND Babe Ruth's 1916 entry...... Coming soon...