Saturday, June 15, 2013

Downhill (1927)

WHO: Alfred Hitchcock directed this.

WHAT: Though Hitchcock disparaged its dialogue and the naïveté of one of its most memorable sequences, and though some modern critics find fault with its thematic misogyny, Downhill is a feast for admirers of the director's visual flourishes, second perhaps only to Blackmail among the silent Hitchcocks I've seen up to now in this regard. Most seem to lay the blame for the film's nearly-uniform negative portrayals of women at the feet of the film's star Ivor Novello, the semi-secretly gay movie idol who wrote the play Downhill was based on, and whose stardom had helped make The Lodger Hitchcock's first box office success. Only four films into his directing career, Hitchcock was still at the mercy of the projects he was assigned, but in the case of Downhill he certainly made the best of it, despite it really being Novello's show in the eyes of most of the public. Bill Krohn describes in his book Hitchcock At Work how at least one showing of the film exploited Novello's celebrity:
In one London theatre where the picture was playing, the lights and the screen went up half-way through the projection to reveal Ivor Novello on a stage dressed with props from the film, where he proceeded to give the public the next ten minutes of the film in sound - and 3-D!
I don't expect this kind of stunt to be tried at any modern screenings of Downhill, but if it were, I suppose the best person to hide behind the screen for such an unveiling would be Jeremy Northam, who played the long-deceased Novello in Robert Altman's 2001 film Gosford Park.

WHERE/WHEN: This afternoon at 4:00 at the Castro Theatre and August 24th at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

WHY: If you skipped the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation of Blackmail last night, you missed one of Hitchcock's best, but also one of his historically most frequently revived early pictures. Today's slate includes four far--lesser-known titles, although the recent BFI restorations of the so-called "Hitchcock 9" should do a lot to rescue them from obscurity. For discussion of Champagne, The Ring, and The Manxman, as well as all the other Hitchcock titles screening at the Castro this weekend, there's no better place to turn than the link round-up compiled by David Hudson.

I single out Downhill because it's the only film playing the rest of this weekend that I've seen on 35mm before (at a slower frame rate at the PFA) and because it's the sole film showing on 35mm film in today's set. The other three, along with last night's Blackmail and tomorrow's The Farmer's Wife, are being distributed only digitally, Made at British International Pictures rather than at the Gainsborough studio, these slightly-later features now are distributed world wide by Studio Canal, and are being made available in the US by Rialto Pictures only on DCP.

The four surviving Gainsborough pictures (The Pleasure Garden, The Lodger, Downhill, and Easy Virtue), on the other hand, have been made available in 35mm prints through the BFI, and will be shown this way at both the Castro this weekend and at the PFA in August. Earlier this week SFSFF Artistic Director Anita Monga told me some fascinating information about the decision to show these films on film rather than DCP:
We were going to present on DCP, and really it was the president of our board who said, "Oh, you have to show 35mm". It's a huge expense to bring 100 pounds of film over. It also requires us to show at 20 frames per second. The Castro no longer has a 3-blade shutter, so 20 frames can be flickery. In our summer festival we are going to install [a 3-blade shutter]; it's like a thousand dollars to install the 3 blade shutter and uninstall it- and we have to increase the lumens on screen. 
The reason the Castro took out their 3-blade shutter, which makes for projection of slower films, is because they had to put so many lumens on screen to get over the 3-blade shutter's leak of light. You have to get so many lumens on the screen to get a good picture, that they were burning out their reflector. So for them, economically, it didn't make sense to have the 3-blade shutter. Because we're showing several films that are screening at lower than 20 frames per, it's a necessity, or else you're seeing an extreme flicker.
Monga told me there will be some DCP at the summer festival as well (expect it for Safety Last!, the comedy shorts program and The Weavers, and don't expect to ever see that latter in a cinema any other way, as no prints exist) but assured me that The First Born, which was co-written by Hitchcock's wife and creative partner Alma Reville, will screen from a 35mm print.

HOW: As noted above, both screenings are planned to employ 35mm prints, with live piano accompaniment. Today it's Stephen Horne providing the music, and in August it will be Judith Rosenberg.

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