Conventional wisdom about John Ford's The Informer goes something like this: The Informer is released, wildly overpraised, wins Oscars for Ford and star Victor McLaglen. It spends a couple of decades on everybody's All-Time Ten Best List. Post-war, however, people look again, find it creaky, overwrought, and stickily sentimental about the IRA. Its reputation plummets, never to revive.
It doesn't deserve that fate. The Siren saw a great print of it recently (on TCM--where else?) and fell in love. If you have not seen it, or if it's merely been a while, she urges you to give this movie a chance. The plot draws fire for its simplicity and obviousness, but all tragedies play out in an obvious, inexorable way, especially if they are classically structured like this one, observing unities of time and place and showing the inevitable consequences of a tragic flaw. The poetry of this tragedy isn't in the words, but in the images.
The Informer is based on a novel by Liam O'Flaherty. In 1922, Gypo Nolan has been thrown out of the IRA for refusing to shoot a deserter. Now he is unemployed and desperate to escape to America with the woman he loves. (Screenwriter Dudley Nichols thus softened the novel's version of Gypo's motivation, which was poverty, nothing more.) To collect a reward of 20 pounds, Gypo reveals to the hated Black and Tans the hiding place of his friend, an IRA gunman on the run. His friend is killed trying to escape. The rest of the movie shows Gypo as he tries to escape both his own agonizing guilt and the certain revenge of the IRA.
The movie's strongest claim to greatness is its stunning beauty. Over the years, anyone who watches enough movies grows accustomed to other filmmakers visually quoting Ford. Here, Ford appropriates a film vocabulary, that of German Expressionism, to flesh out the story without O'Flaherty's prose. The influence of M is everywhere, from the camera panning across a crowd to find Gypo's IRA pursuer, to a late trial sequence where Gypo's fear becomes almost physically painful to watch.
The look of the film made a virtue of necessity, as The Informer was shot on a tiny budget on an RKO set that would have looked like flats from a high-school musical had it been lit like most Hollywood movies of the period. Instead, characters walk or stumble around a fog-shrouded Dublin that looks like a slum you dreamed on a bender. Via Joseph H. August's photography, light seems to physically struggle through the murk. The camera often takes Gypo's point of view, letting you see things the way a drunk sees them, with one person or image jumping into the foreground and the rest of it somehow dim. The images then shift the way they do in a clouded brain. Gypo approaches his love on the street, as she is wrapped in a shawl like a Madonna; she lowers the shawl, turns and as the light falls on her she is revealed as a prostitute. Shot after shot peers through a window or an entrance, as Gypo is on the outside looking in--at a poster for a voyage to America he will never take, through the doorway to his friend's wake, through another doorway to a shebeen where his blood money will buy him drink and the only pale imitation of respect he will ever know.
The film alternates quiet with bursts of noise. Things begin in subdued late-night streets. Then Gypo's friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) goes to see his mother and sister, and the paramilitaries burst in. The scene becomes chaos, with the mother and sister screaming, grabbing the arms of the Black and Tans, throwing themselves in the way, trying anything to protect Frankie, as he tries frantically to get upstairs but wastes time yelling at them not to get in the way. Some see melodrama here; the Siren immediately recalled the fear and mayhem of a house-to-house search in the images she's seen from Iraq. Frankie gets out to a barn loft, but is shot as he tries to cling to it. The camera follows only his arm, the rest of the shot filled with the British in the background, and the soundtrack records his nails scraping along the beam as he dies.
Later moments of quiet often come as we see Preston Foster's IRA commandant, Dan, trying to catch the man who informed on Frankie. These scenes are often very beautiful--a tryst between Dan and Frankie's sister (Heather Angel), whom he loves, is played with only the fire in the fireplace as light. Alas, here the acting really does creak. Angel plays the hands-clasped virgin, Foster the fists-clenched lover. They are dull and at their worst, risible, as when Foster says "It's not me I'm thinkin' of. It's the others in the movement. It's Ireland." The Siren would love to posit that this contrast is deliberate, that Ford the artist wanted you to see Foster as a humbug and a bore. It is far more likely, however, that this part of the movie just hasn't aged well. Indeed, the women in the film are its weakest aspect, though Margot Grahame does all right as Gypo's streetwalking love. "All the women in the story have been stereotyped into lay figures used to suggest the usual heart interests of commonplace fiction, and do not count very much," said contemporary reviewer James Shelly Hamilton.
How much appreciation you have for The Informer may rest on your view of McLaglen's performance. The Siren simply thought he was great. There is a legend that he played the harrowing trial scene either half-drunk or viciously hung over, tricked into that state by his director. From her own brief stage training and everything she has ever read about acting, the Siren doesn't believe it. (The TCM link above also says Ford admitted in later years that there was no way McLaglen could have worked at his high pitch of emotion while actually drunk. Let us also note that Ford didn't need to get an actor drunk to terrorize him, as Maureen O'Hara could still attest.)
The Informer, and its title performance, form a pendant to the endearing, but utterly improbable stage-Irishry of The Quiet Man. Mind you, the Siren likes The Quiet Man, despite the objections raised by thoughtful viewers like the late George Fasel. The later movie is best viewed as a immigrant fairy tale, a fantasy of return to an Ireland of the mind. But in The Informer, McLaglen is playing the dark side of his pugnacious, alcohol-sodden, none-too-bright screen persona. In The Quiet Man, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Wee Willie Winkie, he is supposed to be lovable. Here the actor plays, full-out, something much closer to what this sort of alcoholic is like in real life: loud, phony, self-pitying, prone to gusty over-dramatization, incapable of thinking past the next gulp of whiskey.
Yet, as contemptible as Gypo can be, you retain sympathy for him. Later Ford films would show a man, often John Wayne, able to push back against the flow of history with nothing more than character. Gypo has no character, and no such ability. Ford shows you every one of Gypo's flaws, yet still treats him with compassion. Like Judas, Gypo throws his money away, this time on whiskey and a pitiful tart in a shebeen, fumbling for some sort of painkiller. You know he won't escape alive, but you yearn for Gypo to understand his own actions, so he can find the redemption he craves.
In The Departed, Martin Scorsese used a clip from the end of The Informer, the climactic, crucifixion-like shot of McLaglen as he finally finds forgiveness. The Siren suspects this moment, filmed by Ford precisely as Flaherty described it, would draw a laugh from a too-hip audience. She also thinks Scorsese would not be giggling. It is a moment of real salvation, and by using it Scorsese shows there won't be anything like that for The Departed's characters. As the Catholic-bred Scorsese has illustrated in many films, to get redemption, you have to have real remorse. DiCaprio and Damon--even Nicholson, whose performance and fate give an echo of the Ford film--have only a rat's instinct for self-preservation. The Siren liked The Departed, but she is bold enough to think Scorsese wouldn't mind her preferring Gypo's end to his Boston counterparts.
(Postscript: In writing this piece, the Siren had a blast reading other bloggers' thoughts on Ford, including this by Lance Mannion. She has a lot of affection for that post because it was the first she read at Lance's place. There is this excellent post by fellow Ford admirer Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity, and also a fine appreciation of a Ford I haven't seen, Steamboat Round the Bend, at the blog Tativille. A while back, Andy Horbal posted a fascinating roundup of links about The Searchers, which just turned 50. If you need a corrective to all this Ford worship, try James Wolcott's thoughts, here.)