Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Informer, The (1935)

It is a small picture, shot on tight sets, with lesser known character actors, on a low budget, and with a heavy influence of German expressionism in the composition. John Ford’s The Informer was a reluctant and lightly financed film that at its time would be known as perhaps the greatest motion picture ever made. It is a beautiful picture with a tragic story of one man’s inner struggles of being the Judas to his friend. It was a sleeper of a film that exploded in critic’s circles. Still highly thought of as one of the finest films in Ford’s résumé, in time it would be overshadowed by the likes of other greats, such as Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind.

The Informer is a tragic drama of a poor Irish brute who in a single night turns changes everything in his life, by trading in a friend for a modest reward his conscience emotionally tears him apart from within, leading to his giving away of himself to his peers, set to the background of Irish hardships of the 1920. In a single foggy evening Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) informs the enemy British officials who rule over the Irish of a wanted man, his friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), for the reward of £20 with plans to use it to sail to America with his prostitute girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame). We then watch as Gypo falls into a depression from his conscience of what he did. Through the night he spends much of his newly earned money on heavy drinking and freely handing out the money in acts of kindness, as if doing good with the money will pay for the deed that cost the life of his friend, an act that haunts him from the moment he did it. His actions and demeanor proves to give himself away of his informing to his fellow Irishmen heavily against the British, judging and punishing him for his misdoings. Gypo’s conscience lays to rest as he is forgiven by Frankie’s mother as Gypo dies from the shot of his judgmental peers.

It is beautiful film shot on a small scale. A picture far from the lavish productions we see most of the time out of the Hollywood factory system from studios like MGM or Paramount. It is a film with little known actors, ones you may recognize as character actors from other larger films, but usually carry little to no weight of the production. This is a production that was made in a reminiscent way of the expressionistic film stylings of the German filmmakers that started in Europe and moved to America to inspire others. Almost continually filmed on a set backlit in fog, the production cries out being different from the more marketable pictures of the time period. If anything, this is more of an art house picture than a major motion picture that regularly ran in the theaters of the era, and despite it very modest budget by RKO it would pay off handsomely, not necessarily in box office receipts, but in bringing success in a new artistic means of moviemaking and the sharing of stories that are not as polished as the glitzy features most associated with Hollywood.

It can be simply said that The Informer is a John Ford production. It was his idea and his execution that made the feature happen. Based on a novel with an unsavory characters and a tragic story, RKO was not very open to the idea of financing the film, especially when a British adaptation was released just a few years earlier in 1929. Reluctantly RKO would issue a small budget of $250,000 for Ford to work on. In order to keep production under budget Ford would take a pay cut and work his magic with the camera, giving more depth with less by use of fog and creative lighting.

Heavy use of fog created depth to the small sets
Heavy inspired by works of F.W. Murnau and his work on Sunrise, Ford created a similar expressionistic mood with cinematography and lighting. With heavy use of fog not only did it give the film a look of old world Dublin, but allowed Ford to creatively use small corners of the studio lot to create the town Gypo lived without much detail, ultimately saving more money for production. Also it gave the film a haziness that paralleled the hazy state in which Gypo was living through that night becoming more and more inebriated while being haunted by his actions. Ford manifests his genius in many ways with his artistic and creative means in this particular film, so well that he would be rewarded for his creative and renowned work with his very first Academy Award for best directing.

Victor McLaglen as Gypo, the tragic Irishman
Cast with primarily character actors, the stars of the film are people that one may know more by their faces or voices than by their names, for they rarely, if ever, were cast in anything more than bit parts. The Irish roles were cast with English actors all transplanted to Hollywood. Victor McLaglen, star of the popular Ford film of the previous year, The Lost Patrol, would carry the load of the large, conscience-stricken brute Gypo. His sympathetic character was the work of fine acting on McLaglen part as well as the creative directing on Ford’s behalf. To aid in generating the scenes where Gypo is most distraught and lost Ford would fool McLaglen by telling him he was not to film that day, knowing full well Victor would drink all the night before. Ford then would call the actor back to set the next day hung over and ill-prepared, the perfect position Ford wanted for these scenes with Gypo. McLaglen would not enjoy these tricks at all, but they too paid off handsomely as he would be honored as best actor at the Oscars that year for his work as Gypo, the highlight of his career.

To round out the cast were other fellow English born character actors. Margot Grahame would be the prostitute that held Gypo’s heart and unknowingly inspiring him to inform on his friend for the money that could send the both of them to American, on a simple line she just throws out to Gypo in a moment of frustration. Wallace Ford, who had been around Hollywood in such features as Freaks, Three-Cornered Moon, and Ford’s The Lost Patrol, supplied the central moment of drama playing Frankie, the man Gypo informs on, a sympathetic proud Irishman that gets caught in the middle of battle between Irish and British. Serving a reminders to Gypo of Frankie are his family members, his sister Mary played by Heather Angel, and Frankie’s mother played by Una O’Connor, who is best known for her screaming and hysterical roles in Universal’s horror films of the decade, but here plays a more sorrow filled and down to earth woman.

Initially The Informer would not open to much fanfare and small box office numbers. Once critics discovered the creative genius of the picture high praise would rise from among the papers and magazines reviewing the film. That year it would be nominated for six Academy Awards, winning four. Beside the before mentioned best directing and best actor awards, the picture won for best adapted screenplay, and best score. Writer Dudley Nichols won for his screenplay, but he would be the first man to refuse an Oscar, doing so in protest to union strike taking place at that time. RKO’s Max Steiner would take home the statue for best score, a triumph that pays tribute to the man that had created and arranged such music for a wide number of features, most notably to this point King Kong and The Lost Patrol (a picture for which he was nominated). The film would not take home Oscars for best picture or best editing, but would be highly thought off enough to be awarded best picture awards by the esteemed National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle (the only time any film would unanimously win the honor).

The Informer was almost shockingly highly praised by movie experts. It would be hailed at perhaps the best picture ever made, something to consider when compared to the historical context of films like The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Sunrise, or All Quiet on the Western Front. In time the film would lose its luster with the coming of the likes of Orson Welles and Citizen Kane and even Ford’s later works, such as his masterpiece The Searchers. Though still seen as one of its time’s best features, the film is left off the best films list as movies, have cinema evolved through the decades. Ford’s work in The Informer is not forgotten as it is produced in a manner that is reminiscent of a European film styling of the decade before and can be seen in smaller independent films that would come in the decades to follow. Here Ford made a film that he believed in for the sake of a good movie, little was expected, but much came from it. It is another jewel within the treasure chest provided in the cinema.

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