Silent movies were the norm up until Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. People went to the cinema not expecting to hear the on-screen characters talk at all. In order to compensate for the lack of dialogue, the director can try the following:
- Have the actors “speak” only in short bursts, say a few seconds, thus giving the audience a chance to figure out the basic gist of the conversation
- Include title cards, either for the sake of exposition or to include more-detailed speech
- Have an orchestra play right there in the theater, thus setting the tone for each scene and – again – making it easier for audience to figure out what’s going on
Make sense so far? The emphasis in these silent movies is in the direction – the lighting, the angle of the shot, and so on – as much as it is on the action in each scene. And, incidentally, if the movie is an action film, the on-screen stunts speak for themselves; no dialogue necessary.
So last night I watched a very early Alfred Hitchcock movie called Downhill. It’s about a young lad whose life goes, uh, downhill after he takes the rap for a fellow classmate. Pretty straightforward plot. But it’s also quite plot heavy, meaning that it’s pretty important to have a firm grasp of what’s going on in any particular scene. This is no The General, with Buster Keaton cavorting on a locomotive. This is thick drama.
In the movie, characters frequently talk (silently!) for extended periods of time. Even professional lip readers would have trouble getting a sense of the dialog. There are occasional title cards, but they’re used quite sparingly. And, unlike most other silent films I’ve seen, there’s no music. This movie is as silent as they come. No sound whatsoever.
All of this meant that although I got a general idea of what was happening, the details of the plot were lost to me. There’s one scene, set at a fancy dinner party, where our protagonist sits down at a table with one woman. The woman – through a title card – says something along the lines of “How is it that you’ve come to this?” (Our protagonist has been selling dances.) This indicated to me that the man and the woman have met before, during a time when the man was a little better off. And yet the woman is unfamiliar to me. And seems unfamiliar to him. But they do chat quite a bit after that. What did they say? Beats me.
Downhill, also known as When Boys Leave Home, is 74 minutes long, but there’s enough story for about half of that. There’s no drama, there’s little suspense, and there’s very little comedy. There are none of the hallmarks for which Hitchcock would become so famous. It’s simply a bad movie.
This was early Hitchcock, so one might be forgiven for writing this movie off to some inexperience. Obviously, the man got a little better. But the same year that Downhill was released (in 1927), Hitch also did The Ring, a fantastic tale of two boxers vying for the love of one woman. He did the hilarious The Farmer’s Wife the following year. He had talent even in these early years, but none of it shows up in Downhill.