Of all the films under Hitchcock’s belt up by 1929, Juno and the Paycock might be his most impenetrable for modern audiences. Yes, even more so than his two hour silent rural comedy.
A lot of this comes from immediate technical problems. The film used ridiculously cheap sound equipment so there’s muffled speech and droning background static throughout. Combine that with some questionable “Irish” accents and you’ve got audio as rough as a badger’s arse.
But the most off-putting element in Paycock is the pacing. Hitchcock was a huge fan of Seán O’Casey’s original play and wanted to adapt it as faithful as possible, often running directorial decisions past O’Casey to make sure he was happy. Hitch’s loyalty is commendable, but his attachment to the source material ultimately holds the film back. It unfolds like a filmed stage play, rather than a movie. The thrilling visual language we’ve seen in Hitch’s silent films (and Blackmail) is abandoned and we’re left with an inert and “wordy” one-room drama.
But once your ears have stopped bleeding and you ease in to the slow pace you’ll uncover an engaging story. In the slums of Dublin at the height of the Irish Civil War we follow the struggles of the Boyle family: Juno (Sara Allgood), her two children Mary (Kathleen O’Regan) and Johnny (John Laurie) and her husband Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman) who’s nicknamed the peacock – or “paycock” – on account of his vanity and uselessness.
When the family starts to tear apart the film reaches a shockingly bleak – almost nihilistic – conclusion. Allgood nails her final heart-wrenching monologue and it makes for an impactful send-off. It’s a fitting ending to a highly ideological film dealing with issues of national loyalty, the scars of guilt and the terrifying judgement of a devout Catholic society.
Despite these meaty topics, Paycock fails to utilize the inbuilt differences between film and theatre. It’s best to approach it as a venture into new territory since Hitchcock would later discover how to “translate” plays into films with Dial M For Murder and Rope.
An interesting early attempt, but as the great director later admitted in his famous interview with François Truffau, Juno and the Paycock has “nothing to do with cinema.”