THE INFORMER, 1935
Cast: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame, Wallace Ford
Set in Dublin, 1922, Gypo Nolan, an Irish rebel big on strength but not on intelligence, has been ousted from the Sinn Fein. His loyalty to his former comrades is tested when he finds that his equally destitute sweetheart Katie has been reduced to prostitution. Starving and driven to violent desperation, Gypo succumbs to temptation and betrays his best friend Frankie to the British authorities for a twenty pound reward setting in motion a downward spiral of degradation and emotional disintegration which eventually betrays his guilt.
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Academy winner for Best Actor (Victor McLaglen), Best Music Score (Max Steiner) Screenplay (Dudley Nichols) and Best Direction (John Ford), the Informer is one of those films that ‘no one wanted to make’. Nominated in several other categories and touted world wide including taking the National Board of Review Best film of the year award, New York Film Critics Circle Award and receiving a nom at the Venice film Festival for that year. Not bad for a film, no one wanted to make’ during the hey-day of the escapist gloss that was being pumped out of Hollywood during the depression.
Bold and maudlin, this ‘realistic’ approach to a simplistic story of betrayal lends itself more towards the expressionistic filmmaking of Fritz Lang than it does from one of Cinema’s most celebrated poets, but that is what makes Ford so endearing. He is a story teller first, therefore it is the script that is served, proving that his underlying skills as a storyteller, visual designer, and dramatic guide did not require the high-priced Hollywood trappings that were the films competition for that year. The imagery is dark, brooding and compelling. The action, particularly in the shoot out between Frankie and the Black and Tans is amazingly over-wrought with emotion. There is a true sense of foreboding and urgency that many of the more pedestrian films did not dare to attempt.
Morally complex, the at times over-the top acting of its’ peripheral characters pushes this classic towards the edge of discomfort as the style of performance has changed since this film was made. However one must view the Informer within the context of it’s time and place which is nestled in between the silent era and Hollywood’s Golden age. Hollywood was finding itself as the creator of dreams and fantasies, without the need for social commentary to validate itself. Here, the filmmaker spurn their glossier counterparts to create what could be called one of the first Indie-films made under a studio banner.
The Informer is truly one of the first ‘indie films’ as we have come to know the modern terminology of what that means. Much like bankable film makers today, John Ford went against his usual niche’ and took tremendous risk to bring about his personal vision. Although backed by a studio, it was made at RKO- the Miramax of it’s day- and surrounded by well known talent at various levels including respected screen writer, Dudley Nichols, composer Max Steiner and production design by Van Nest Polglase.
One could argue that the Informer was to John Ford as Schindler’s List was to Steven Spielberg. Much like Spielberg, prior to The Informer’s completion many were convinced that this director’s personal vision would be his financial ruin and he would be forced to get back to his lighter fare to make ‘ amends’ for going against what the public wanted from him. One could say that in taking this risk he brought a sense of artistic validation to an already bankable career. Thankfully the success of the Informer allowed Ford to produce some of the most enduring films in history, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green Was My Valley and Grapes of Wrath to only name a few.
This is a must-see for anyone wanting to get a glimpse of John Ford at the entry way to what would become a remarkably artistic journey that has given inspiration to the many filmmakers who count him as the greatest director in cinema history.