Downhill (1928): Hitchcock’s Fourth Feature

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 as When Boys Leave Home.

As the title suggests, Downhill 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,” starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker.

Visually, the film conveys its central theme of decline and descent through the extensive use of staircases. There is 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 the chance to reflect on and to critique two institutions, which will become prevalent in his work: the rigid class structure of British society (manifest, among other things, in the snobbishness and respectability of the public school’s system) and, more importantly, the world of the theater, with its reliance on masks, costumes, make-believe, role-playing, and illusions (and delusions)


Running time: 95 Minutes.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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


Lillian Braithwaite as Lady Berwick

Violet Farebrother as the Poetess

Alf Goddard as the Swede

Barbara Gott as Mme. Michet

Ian Hunter as Archie

Robin Irvine as Tim Wakely