Friday 21 September 2012

Hitch and Shlomo at the NFT - Downhill (1927)

Annette Benson, Robin Irvine and Ivor Novello
This was the fifth of the BFI's superb silent Hitchcock restorations and featured arguably the most daring choice of live score from beatboxer Shlomo.

The audience crammed into NFT 1 to watch what could have been a messy culture clash between the silent expressionism of our master director and the vocalisations of the man dubbed the Harry Potter of Beatbox. Hipsters to the left of me, cineasts to the right...  would this be a hip-hop too far?

Not quiet: it was edgy and occasionally unbalanced but it also reinforced the sharp humour in the story and
created a new emotional blend for the film. It was a bit risky but that helped to remind you that, in 1927, this wasn't a sure fire hit film from one of our greatest ever directors, but a very early step in the young man's hectic career: only his fifth film and one begun in haste after he'd already started his next feature...

Ivor Novello and Norman McKinnel
So, the 28-year old beatbox innovator and dynamo from Bucks meets the 28-year old cinematic mash-up artist and creative whirlwind from the East End... who gave off the most energy and which one's actually more street?

In truth the balance between the silence and the sound was not always maintained. The music did sometimes intrude on the story and in this context at least, it was occasionally a little loud - especially the bass (impressive though it was!). But mostly it worked well and really clicked for certain sequences... the rugby, the music hall... the illicit dancing in Ye Olde Bunne Shoppe!

Dancing in the dark...
Shlomo didn't perform himself but had five amazing voices working together in total unity: Robin Bailey and Billy Boothroyd (tenors), Julie Kench (soprano), Harriet Syndercombe Court (alto) and Tobias Hug with that huge booming bass. They all pitched in with rhythmic sound but also sang exceptionally well - far from the DIY amateurism you might expect from this genre. But then Shlomo is no slouch, he's classically trained and an accomplished jazz drumer... he's worked with Bjork, Damon Albarn and the sainted Martha Wainwright amongst many others.

There were times when I thought that the score was too successful in musical terms and that this would be a great gig on its own. But, ultimately, the job was done well - the music and the images did succeed in creating a indivisible synthesis that was unique if not always smooth.

Sybil Rhoda
As for the film... Downhill is one of the restorations I've been keenest to see as it features Sybil Rhoda. Sybil is the great aunt of my friend Nicky and it is rare to find such a living connection to this period of cinema*. Nicky had talked about the film with her aunt who professed to having few memories of the experience and yet there she was sitting alongside Ivor Novello in near pristine quality.

Sybil died a few years ago but there's a lovely interview on The Guardian website she did in 2004 when she was 101. She lived a long and full life and was quite an ucompromising character by all accounts... what she would have made of Shlomo is hard to say...let alone the film's late start!

But it was a treat to have her great niece with us to watch this restoration.

Ivor Novello and Sybil Rhoda
Sybil plays the sister of  Tim Wakely (Robin Irvine), a public schoolboy who's best friend is rugby star and school captain, Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello). She appears at the start of the film as the boys celebrate a rugby victory with a formal dinner. She encounters Roddy in the process of changing and chats with him during the meal.

But Roddy has many admirers and one of the waitresses, Mabel (Annette Benson, sizzling like a cockney Clara Bow), has designs on him. She arranges to meet with his mate Tim in the Bunne Shoppe hoping to ensnare one or the other.

Ivor Novello, Sybil Rhoda, Annette Benson and Robin Irvine
The three meet at the Shoppe and much dancing ensues. This is one of the film's best sequences and Hitchcock handles this teenage tryst with subtelty, lots of awkward interactions, false moves and shadow play as Mabel gets the one she can have but not the one she wants. A further assignation with Tim is arranged and clearly signposted on the shop door... wednesday half-day closing.

The meaning only becomes clear when the boys are summoned to the Head's office. Roddy turns in shock to see Mabel sitting behind him. she has come to accuse one of the boys of getting her pregnant... it was Tim but, in spite she points the finger at Roddy. His decency dictates that he takes the rap and he ensures his expulsion and the beginning of his life downhill...

Annette Benson
Thrown out of his home by his unforgiving father, Roddy decends down into the London Underground in a shot Hitchcock later felt was too obvious. It's still effective though and was surely worth the early morning shooting at Maida Vale tube station where the sign says " anywhere, quickest way, cheapest fare".

Ivor Novello... stage left
The next phase of Roddy's fall begins cleverly as the camera pulls back to reveal him wearing formal diner jacket, but he's a waiter... on stage... back in the minor places. Hitchcock has returned to his beloved music hall and this intelligent sequence says so much in just a few seconds.

Roddy is mixing with dubious theatricals, who soon contrive to liberate him of a lucky inheritance. He marries actress Julia (Isabel Jeans) who only has eyes on his new money and feathers her own nest whilst still seeing the brutish Archie (Ian Hunter of The Ring fame). Roddy is ruined and in his anger lays out Archie (which stretches credibility just a tad given their relative stature...).

Isabel jeans and Ian Hunter
He heads for France and the Moulin Rouge,"the world of lost illusions" and life as a "consort" who is loaned out to amuse lonely ladies of wealth. He meets a middle-aged poet (Violet Farebrother), who is understanding but then  the sudden illness of one of the revelers forces someone to pull the curtains wide and the empty debauchery of all those around him is revealed in dazzling sunlight.

Roddy hits absolute rock bottom in dingy Marseille where he looks to be near death... his motley cohabitants  return him to Britain in the hope of a reward but he escapes at the docks and make his delirious way home.

The sequences here are especially effective as all those who have dragged him down appear colluding in his waking dreams and his unforgiving father manifests as a deckhand and then a policeman. Hitchcock then shows the streets of London swirling in overlay as Roddy relives his downfall and fights the last few yards home... will he find redemption?

Downfall is a visually very coherent as you'd expect and has some excellent scenes utilizing expressionistic light and shade. It's not the strongest of stories and it is unsurprising that it started out as a play, co-written by Novello with Constance Collier.

Ivor Novello is superb as Roddy and is largely convincing as a schoolboy even though he was 34 at the time - he obviously relished the chance to run through the emotional gears. As has been noted, he is a male version of the Hitchcock blonde, with his extraordinary features perfectly suited to the cinematic process. But Annette Benson runs him close for visual intensity as the frustrated and vengeful Mabel.

And then there's Sybil... I'd like to hope that once the dust had settled, Roddy and her were able to continue their dinner conversation and then who knows...

Downfall is currently available on DVD but I'd hold off for the release of the restoration, which will hopefully have Shlomo's score. To find out more about his music visit his site Beatboxing Adventures.

*Having said that, Nicky's husband Mike, revealed that his father's second cousin used to clean the offices of the man who performed a hip replacement operation on Lillian Gish!

Post script... here's a stunning portrait of Sybil Rhoda taken from around this period - she was much in demand as a model. Copies are available from the BFI Printstore. Sybil was also in Boadicea (1928) starring alongside the great Lillian Hall-Davis as one of the daughters of the queen.

Sybil Rhoda