There has been many movies about the legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, including recent documentaries Hitchcock/Truffaut and 78/52. Though despite how constantly the auteur’s filmography is analysed, explored and discussed, very little has been said about his stagey 1930’s adaptation of Irishman Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock. The play and the resulting film are set in the working class tenements of Dublin in the early 1920s, during the Irish Civil War.
Director Brian O’Flaherty looks to change this with his new documentary When Hitchcock Met O’Casey, which screened at Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival (Virgin Media DIFF). The film – through interviews with O’Casey’s relatives, experts in both central figures’ work and archival footage of Hitch himself – paints a picture of what attracted the future Psycho director to Juno and why his take on the material has not stood the test of time.
Given the fact that its subjects are long dead, When Hitchcock Met O’Casey lacks the recounting of first hand experience that makes film documentaries like DePalma or the recent Filmworker such delights. Instead the film takes a more academic approach. Using the snippets of information we can confirm about the two’s collaboration, it then allows its various talking heads to ruminate and expand on the facts, coming to their own personal conclusions.
There are moments in the documentary where this style works against it. Sometimes various interviewees’ thoughts contradict each other, the differing opinions overwhelming the viewer. However, for the most part, When Hitchcock Met O’Casey is successful in its goals, covering in depth every intriguing aspect of the adaptation.
For example, there’s the question of why Hitchcock chose the material. Talking heads in the film posit that despite its less overt thriller elements, the play of Juno has many of the hallmarks of Hitchcock’s work. After all, it features dark comedy, a damaged brooding male protagonist, as well as strong female characters battling predatory men.
Others suggest that maybe Hitchcock saw himself in O’Casey or was subconsciously drawn to him. Both came from similar circumstances. Each grew up in turbulent times (WWI and the Rising) and escaped into their respective artistic mediums, hoping to create work that people of all social classes could enjoy.
The film than explores why the end product did not have a lasting effect. Some talking heads suggest Hitchcock may have had too much reverence for the play, not leaning into the elements which drew him to the project – making for a very literal adaptation. Others say the director was hampered by the technology of the time. It was the filmmaker’s first fully sound film. Maybe he struggled to blend his virtuoso camera work with the capturing of authentic audio, leading to a quite static looking movie.
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That said, is the 1930 adaptation completely a write-off or is it worth watching for a chance to see legendary Abbey actors like Sara Allgood and Barry Fitzgerald (although not in the role he should have played!) perform a classic of Irish theatre? This again is a question spun out into another interesting debate for hardcore cinephiles.
This informative approach – particularly surrounding such an underseen movie – may alienate casual viewers expecting a heart-warming tale about a legendary director in Ireland. That said, there are fleeting moments where the film lives up to such hopes. O’Casey’s flowery recollection of Hitchcock’s hulking body in his autobiography is a joy. Meanwhile, there’s some great footage of the director discussing his oeuvre. His droll delivery and gallows humour is nicely peppered throughout the documentary.
Even with these brief moments of levity, When Hitchcock Met O’Casey may be too niche for wide audiences. Yet, its deep dive approach to its material will undoubtedly appeal to both fans of its central figures, as well as theatre and film obsessives. It had this reviewer wanting to crack open his DVD copy of the 1930 Juno again. In 2019, that’s high praise.