One of the most compelling things about early Alfred Hitchcock movies is how varied they can be while still shedding some light on some of the magic to come out of the director’s more renowned works. Consider 1930’s Juno and the Paycock, hardly the first film associated with the Master of Suspense by any means. Based on a play of the same name by Sean O’Casey, this picture finds the filmmaker at perhaps his most static.
Hitch was reluctant to make this movie at first because he had trouble seeing how it would fit a cinematic context. He was quite fond of the play and of O’Casey, though, and even held the playwright in mind when crafting the doomsayer in The Birds. Although Hitchcock maintained that creating Juno and the Paycock on screen was “not a pleasant experience” and that he felt “dishonest” for it, it’s a good picture.
As the film opens, we find ourselves in the slums of Dublin during the Irish Civil War. Gunfire interrupts a street-speaker (Barry Fitzgerald) and sends men scrambling. Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman) and his friend Joxer (Sidney Morgan) first hit up a pub for a drink and then head back to Boyle’s house, bad-mouthing the Captain’s wife Juno (Sara Allgood) without realizing her presence.
This sets off a chain of events that finds the Boyle’s suddenly coming into some money thanks to news from Charlie Bentham (John Longden) who is courting Mary Boyle (Kathleen O’Regan). Bentham reveals that a relative of the Boyle’s has passed away and left a considerable amount of money to the family. Excited at the idea, the family tries to turn things around before things once more take a turn.
A running theme of Juno and the Paycock is the inhumanity of man. The characters constantly have their hopes dashed as they learn lessons about the loyalty of friends and the abruptness with which situations can change. This is driven home with what happens to Johnny (John Laurie), the Boyle’s son, after he finds himself in the middle of some serious trouble.
Another running theme is the more specific theme of the inhumanity of men. Hitchcock has been knocked around a bit for not being particularly fair to female characters, a claim I find ridiculous, but Juno and the Paycock has no shortage of morally courageous women. Consider Juno, who learns of her daughter’s “disgrace” at the hands of Bentham and stands by her even to the point of leaving her husband.
Consider also Mary’s cries to heaven about God, spoken in defiance not only of her non-existent heavenly father but to her earthly dad as well. She feels abandoned, so it is up to Juno to come to her side in rather progressive fashion. The line about the baby having “two mothers” is powerful stuff and really sets the film on its head.
Juno and the Paycock doesn’t get a lot of credit and Hitchcock didn’t feel like he had done much to deserve the acclaim behind it given the power of the source material. Indeed, the filmmaker shoots it straight and only includes a couple of exterior shots. Most of the activity takes place inside the apartment flat, a nod to its stage origins.
Yet this picture provides more than a few prophetic moments as to the artist Hitch was striving to become. The insulated sensibility predicts Rope for one thing, while the narrative as to the depths men can sink to provides a framework for many of his more murderous moments. It may not be “pure Hitchcock,” but Juno and the Paycock is a damn good film in its own right.