|Written by Allan Peach|
|Tuesday, 27 June 2006|
John Ford’s “The Informer” is one of the director’s greatest films and therefore one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. It brought Ford his first Academy Award (the film won four Oscars and was nominated for six). For years it made every critic’s top ten list, and director Samuel Fuller considered it the greatest film ever made. “The Informer” was also a major influence on Orson Welles, and when Welles was asked to name the three greatest film directors of all time, he replied, “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”
Recently, however, the film has gone out of favor with critics and is considered by many to be dated, melodramatic, and overly artsy. It is a pity, as modern audiences and reviewers, to a large extent, have lost the ability to accept films that are stylized and veer from today’s more accepted naturalism. In order to fully appreciate the movie, the viewer must enter its world. “The Informer” was born from the Silent German Expressionism of Murnau, Lang, and Pabst. Expressionist films are iconic, and not realistic. Often performances express ideas in bigger than life ways, and emotions are represented boldly in symbols and character archetypes.
The film opens much like a silent film, and it is over five and a half minutes before we hear the first word of dialogue. The year is 1922, and the Irish Rebellion is in full swing. Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen), walking the foggy streets of Dublin, spies a wanted poster for his friend and IRA member, Frankie McPhillip. Gypo nervously eyes the poster’s £20 reward, but remembering his friend, tears the poster from the wall and throws it to the ground.
As Gypo continues his walk, the wind blows the crumpled poster and it appears to follow him. It clings to his leg. The poster seems to express Gypo’s darker thoughts. Gypo passes an Irish street singer who is being patted down by British officers. The tenor continues to sing despite the harassment, and is finally thrown a tip by one of the Brits. In this elegant passage, Ford summarizes the political situation in Ireland during 1922. British forces occupy Dublin, but the Irish spirits persists.
Later, Gypo finds his girl, Katie (Margot Grahame), prostituting herself on the street. Gypo angrily grabs her potential john, and throws him into the road. Katie yells Gypo’s name, and the first bit of dialogue begins. Throughout this long, speechless introduction, we hear Max Steiner’s music punctuating each dramatic moment: a head turn, the poster blowing in the wind, a match striking against a lamppost; each moment with its own musical sting. Up until Steiner, this type of original “Mickey Moused” music was not common. (The term “Mickey Mouse” is not derogatory, rather describing how Disney would use music in perfect sync with action of his cartoons.) Steiner in “King Kong” and “The Informer” brought these methods to the dramatic film. At the time, it was common to only use stock music. Steiner spawned the use of original compositions, and forever changed the course of film music with these two movies.
Returning to the film’s storyline, the poverty-stricken Gypo and Katie stare at a travel poster for America. For £20 they could leave Ireland and start a new life. But when Katie sarcastically vocalizes this, Gypo turns on her. “What are you suggesting?” he yells. But Katie is blameless.
We see a man from the waist down, walking the streets. The wind blows the wanted poster against his leg and it clings to him. It is Frankie McPhillip, and the action links McPhillip to Gypo. Later, McPhillip runs into Gypo. When Gypo sees his friend, the reward poster is superimposed over Frankie’s chest. In a modern film, this would be laughable, but it is consistent with the expressionist style of “The Informer.”
Reminiscent of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Frankie is the George to Gypo’s Lennie. Only together do Frankie’s brain and Gypo’s brawn form a whole. After Gypo informs on Frankie, we see that Frankie, without Gypo, is helpless against the British. But more importantly, it is the informer’s brutish nature, unrestrained by Frankie’s reason, which condemns the hapless Gypo.
Gypo is less a man than an animal. His movements are ape-like, shuffling rather than walking. The very reason for ratting on Frankie is lost in his inanely lavish spending spree. Gypo’s emotions are those of a child, undeveloped and self-serving. Gypo is generous only to find acceptance—to be “King Gypo.”
Outside the police office, a blind man appears out of the fog like a specter, a manifestation of Gypo’s conscience. Later, Gypo tries to pay off the blind man, but a conscience cannot be bribed. Emotions and ideas are objectified as people, posters, coins, and other symbols.
Gypo’s thinking becomes more and more clouded. In a bar, he repeats “I’ve got to have a plan,” only to hear the imagined voice of Frankie proclaiming that he is Gypo’s brain, and without him Gypo is lost.
When the IRA first confronts Gypo, he turns on another friend, Mulligan, a meek tailor. In a highly embellished lie, Gypo blames Mulligan of being the informer. But the IRA members suspect otherwise, and follow Gypo as he throws away his blood money on parasitic hangers-on.
By the time of Gypo’s trial (reminiscent of Lang’s “M”), his thoughtless actions have sealed his fate. Gypo is sentenced to death, but escapes to Katie. Fearing the inevitable, Katie goes to Frankie’s sister to beg her to intercede for Gypo’s life. But the die is cast, and Katie inadvertently informs on Gypo.
“The Informer” was made on a shoestring, and executives at RKO were often hostile to the production. With no money to build elaborate sets, Ford and cinematographer Joseph H. August used forced perspective, fog effects, and stylized lighting and compositions to build a Dublin of the mind; a fog filled city that reflected the clouded thoughts of Gypo Nolan.
The film was shot on a sound stage, but not at RKO. Years later, Samuel Fuller used the same stage for the mental hospital of “Shock Corridor.” Ford visited Fuller on the set and pointed out where the pubs and homes of “The Informer” had been built. Ford also told Fuller how an executive at RKO (who Fuller later referred to as a pimple on civilization), once closed down the production. Ford had to literally beg for funds to continue the work; an humiliation that haunted Ford.
“The Informer” may be a difficult film for modern audiences, but if the style is both accepted and understood, “The Informer” is a near perfect work of art.
The picture quality of the film is mixed with some scratches and dirt. Still, the film is beautiful to watch and the artifacts of age are not distracting. The sound suffers from the recording technology of the thirties, but sound is used well throughout, and Steiner’s score drives the film to its ultimate conclusion.