Downhill (1928): Hitchcock’s Fourth Film, Based on Play by Ivor Novello and Constance Collier

Shot in the U.K., Hitchcock’s fourth feature, Downhill, was based on sketches by two actors, Ivor Novello, who had starred in the director’s former film, “The Lodger,” and Constance Collier, adapted to the screen by Eliot Stannard.

In the .U.S., the film was released under the title of “When Boys Leave Home,” though “Downhill” is more appropriate, because it is literally an exploration of downward social mobility and moral decline,

The film introduced a theme that would recur in Hitchcock’s future work, the shared guilt, or the transference of guilt from one person to another.  An opening title states: “Two boys made a pact of loyalty—and one kept it at a price.”

The plot concerns the black sheep of a prosperous family, who begins his downward spiral when he is expelled from school after protecting a friend from punishment, living up to their vow of loyalty and camaraderie.

Following several desultory adventures, Ivor Novello’s Roddy Berwick falls for and weds a faithless, decadent actress, who divests him of what little money he has and runs off with another man. Only when he is at his lowest is Roddy forgiven by his family.

Hitchcock was intrigued by the notion of how the innocence of one individual can become tainted by the guilt of another one.  The same theme will be developed in “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Frenzy,” and most fully realized in “Strangers on a Train,” co-starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker.

Visually, the film conveys its central theme of decline and descent through the extensive use of staircases, with one striking image that depicts an escalator descending to the London underground, accompanied by a title card that says: “this is the quickest way to everything.”

Hitchcock is less successful when the plot forces the protagonist to go to France—Paris and Marseilles—though in the latter city, there’s an interesting hand-held camera sequence along the docks.

“Downhill” offers the director to reflect on and critique two prevalent institutions in his work: the rigid class structure of British society (manifest, among other things, in the snobbishness and respectability of the public schools system) and, more importantly, the world of the theater, with its reliance on masks, costumes, make-believe, role-playing, and illusions (and delusions).

Narrative Structure (Detailed Synopsis)

Set at an expensive English boarding school for boys, the tale centers on Roddy Berwick (Novello), the School Captain and star rugby player. He and best friend Tim Wakely (Robin Irvine) begin courting a waitress named Mabel (Annette Benson).

Out of pique, Mabel tells the headmaster that Roddy is the father of her baby, while it was actually Tim.  But Tim cannot afford to be expelled because he needs the scholarship to attend Oxford University. Promising Tim to keep the secret, Roddy accepts expulsion.

However, back in his parents’ home, Roddy finds that his father Sir Thomas Berwick (Norman McKinnel) believes him guilty of the false accusation.

Leaving home, Roddy finds work as an actor and goes on to marry the flirtatious leading actress Julia Fotheringale (Isabel Jeans) after inheriting from a relation. Unfaithful, Julia secretly continues an affair with her leading man Archie (Ian Hunter) and discards Roddy after his inheritance is exhausted.

After serving as a gigolo in a Paris music hall, he quits out of disgust and self-loathing for romancing older women for money.

Roddy ends up alone and delirious in a shabby room in Marseilles. Some sailors ship him back home, hoping for reward.

Meanwhile, Roddy’s father has learned the truth about the waitress’s false charge and welcomes his son back.

Recurring Themes and Objects:

Literary source: Play

Setting: Theater world

Family: Father-son relationship

Shared guilt

Happy ending



Running time: 95 Minutes.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Eliot Stannard, based on the play by Constance Collier and Ivor Novello


Ivor Novello as Roddy Berwick
Robin Irvine as Tim Wakely
Isabel Jeans as Julia Fotheringale
Ian Hunter as Archie
Norman McKinnel as Sir Thomas Berwick
Annette Benson as Mabel
Sybil Rhoda as Sybil Wakely
Lilian Braithwaite as Lady Berwick
Violet Farebrother as The Poet
Ben Webster as Dr. Dawson
Hannah Jones as The Dressmaker
Jerrold Robertshaw as Reverend Henry Wakely
Barbara Gott as Madame Michet
Alf Goddard as The Swede
J. Nelson as Hibbert