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Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #15: The Informer, 1935

"Then Judas repented himself - and cast down the thirty pieces of silver - and departed." 

The Informer, 1935

Director: John Ford
Writer: Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Liam O'Flaherty
Cinematographer:  Joseph H. August 
Produced by: John Ford for RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame, Wallace Ford, Una O'Connor, Donald Meek
Music: Max Steiner

Why I chose it
This tied for first in my Twitter poll, but the Oscars the film won, especially the score by Steiner and Best Actor for Victor McLaglen, convinced me I needed to see this early John Ford talkie, which won him his first Best Director Oscar.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
In one Dublin evening during the Irish Civil War of 1922, a brutish, desperate, recently court-martialed ex-member of the IRA Gypo Nolan (McLaglen), informs on a fellow rebel (Wallace Ford) to the British 'Black and Tan' authorities and comes to regret this act, as the rebel is killed and Nolan quickly wastes the 20 pounds he gained for his informing.

Production Background 
John Ford was a successful director during the silent era and made a grudging transition to sound, employed by Fox. There he made epics and bucolic "Griffithian" dramas according to his biographer, Scott Eyman. When he switched to RKO, his style changed, and he indulged his love of German expressionistic technique, which was infused into the dark night settings and dramatic lighting of The Informer. McLaglen and Ford were collaborators for decades, both hard-drinking Celtic souls who somehow found great humanity in their films' characters. Tales told that McLaglen was actually drunk during his scenes of inebriation were debunked much later by Ford himself. 

Ford specifically requested composer Max Steiner for the movie based on his score for The Lost Patrol made with Ford the previous year. Previews were lukewarm, making the production team nervous, but critics were rapturous and surprising most, it earned a hefty profit. Based on this reception and the resulting Oscars, Ford was now a bona fide star director, coveted by the industry despite his being difficult to work with. As for Steiner, he won his first Oscar, and much praise for his score. Director Frank Capra even sent him a telegram exclaiming the score was the best he'd ever heard (Music by Max Steiner, by Steven C. Smith, 2020).

Some other notable film-related events in 1935*:

  • RKO's and Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp (1935) was the first feature-length Technicolor film to be shot entirely in 3-strip color - a milestone film dramatizing William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair with Miriam Hopkins in the title role.
  • British director Alfred Hitchcock became an internationally famous figure for his thriller The 39 Steps.
  • Twentieth Century Pictures (founded in 1933 by Darryl F. Zanuck and Joseph Schenck) and the Fox Film Corporation (founded by William Fox in 1915) merged to form 20th Century-Fox, overseen by Schenck and Zanuck.
  • Selznick International Pictures, a major Hollywood motion picture studio, was founded in 1935 by David O. Selznick, who had left MGM. As an independent producer, David O. Selznick served as a "one-man" film industry with tremendous authority and power over the selection of stars and decisions of directors.
  • Olivia de Havilland debuted in film with A Midsummer's Night Dream

*Thanks to

My Random Observations

  • For the first quarter of the film, this feels like a silent. There are long dialogue-free stretches, with dramatic music, expressionistic lighting and close-ups of faces overcome with emotion.  This isn't surprising, as Ford, experienced in directing silent film, was emerging from that era to the new 'talking picture' era that he would master as well. As a fan of the late silent period, I loved this "throw-back" feeling, considering much of the early 1930s were pre-Code dialogue-rich offerings.
  • Despite its minimalist sets, unsubtle symbolism and expressionistic filming technique, the film feels authentic. Ford, a son of Irish immigrants, had a knack for getting the culture down. It truly felt like you were looking at real events in war-torn Dublin through perhaps a distorted lens. Credit should go, of course, to McLaglen, whose towering central performance is believable if heavily dramatic.
  • Someone should write an opera from this story. Having not read the novel, I'm not sure if the outlines of the plot are more complex than in the film, but the simple story, filled with high-pitched emotion and stirring action, and its short time frame would be perfect set to music. Perhaps some of Steiner's score could inspire the composer, along with popular Irish tunes inflected with appropriate dissonance, of course.
  • Once again, I'm taking a moment to laud one of my favorite character actors: this time, Wallace Ford. No relation to director John, Ford had a difficult early life but emerged in movies with his raw talent in the early 1930s to take on flawed leading men or secondary parts that put his boyish enthusiasm and bluster with a natural vulnerability bordering on weakness of character to good use. The part of the doomed Frankie McPhillip is perfect for him. If his Irish accent isn't consistent, well, it's not uncommon for actors to not quite nail difficult accents (although Ford was born in England so... hmmm.). Ford was handsome and likeable as a young actor, and aged, as many do, with a few extra pounds, continuing his career through the early 1960s. His last role was of the brow-beaten grandfather in A Patch of Blue with Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters, and Elizabeth Hartman.
    Wallace Ford in middle age (Wikipedia)


Our first glimpse of conflicted, downtrodden Gypo.

Gypo considers the reward offered for the capture of his compatriot.

A street tenor (Denis O'Dea) sings 'The Rose of Tralee'

A side of character actor Donald Meek that we rarely see. 
Here he's sizing up streetwalker Katie.

Katie and Gypo pine to escape war-torn Dublin. If they 
only had the cash.

Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) wanted and hiding.

Gypo and Frankie share confidences at an IRA hangout.

Gypo in the act of informing.

Frankie beset by the Black and Tans.

Frankie's mother collapses in grief.

Gypo with Frankie's mother and sister, trying to hide his guilt.

Gypo, buying everyone a meal, is very popular for a few minutes.

 A biblical denouement as Gypo repents his guilt before 
a life-sized crucifix and Frankie's mother.

Frankie tries to negotiate with IRA leaders Gallagher and 
Mulholland (Preston Foster & Joe Sawyer).

Desperate lovers Gypo and Katie (Margot Grahame) have a tender moment.

Where to Watch
The film is available on DVD (Warner Bros. Archive) and currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, where I watched, and other streaming platforms.

Further Reading
I enjoyed the Self-Styled Siren's essay looking at the evolution of film criticism centered on the film, and also this SUNY-Albany article with production tidbits.

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