(U.S., John Ford)
The Informer was something of a passion project for John Ford, but RKO was less than enthusiastic about bringing this dark, depressing tale of poverty, betrayal, guilt and the endless cycle of hate to the screen. (Of course any movie we call a “passion project” is almost always by definition opposed by studio execs.) RKO finally relented, but only gave Ford $250,000 to make it. Ford cut corners, including waiving his own salary, to bring this picture in on time and under budget, but it still flopped. It was not until it won several Oscars, including a best actor award for Victor McLaglen, that audiences discovered it and turned The Informer into a major success.
Ford transports us to British occupied Ireland 1922. Institutional poverty and British oppression weigh heavily on the city of Dublin. Hulking Gypo Nolan (McLaglen) is worse off than most. He was once a foot soldier of the Irish Republican Army but was cut loose after he failed to carry out an assassination order. Now he tries to exist on the fringes of both British authority and Irish loyalty, neither side ready to completely embrace him. He scrapes together a meager living, though he can’t save his girlfriend Katie (Heather Angel) from a life of prostitution.
They dream of leaving Ireland behind and sailing for the United States, but the tickets are prohibitively expensive at £20. That’s a small fortune for Gypo, Katie, and just about everyone else in the city. However, Gypo finds a solution: the authorities are offering, as if by divine providence, a £20 reward for the capture of an IRA member who happens to be Gypo’s close friend. Since he no longer has a stake in this fight for independence, he determines to turn him in and use the reward to take Katie to the United States.
That their potential escape comes because he sacrificed a friend’s life gnaws at Gypo’s conscious. He immediately begins spending some of his newly earned blood money on alcohol to assuage his nagging guilt. Meanwhile the IRA leadership launches an investigation to find the informer and Gypo isn’t covering up his tracks too carefully as he gets drunker and spends more of the money everyone knows he shouldn’t have.
Ford’s mise-en-scéne, dominated by oppressive shadows, ominous fog and sparse lighting, is clearly influenced by the films of German Expressionist directors. Though his limited budget probably necessitated the judicious use of dark (a director doesn’t have to pay for that which we cannot see), Ford used his limitations to elevate the material. He made a picture that succeeds in breaking out of the studio system’s cookie-cutter look; it has a personal vision in a system that discouraged individual perspective. There is a wonderful shot early in the picture when British troops break into a house. They splinter the door and light pours into the dark room from outside. The soldiers burst into the room as faceless silhouettes. It’s a visually stunning moment that heightens the drama of the violent moment, but also buttresses the idea that violence, direct or indirect, is always easier when we reduce our victims to non-human status. The British and Irish clearly detest each other, but their hatred is broad and non-specific, like the silhouetted figures breaking into the house.
John Ford doesn’t just elevate the visuals. He took a mediocre actor, Victor McLaglen, and, from all reports, painfully extracted a great performance from him. The day before they filmed the climatic trial scene, Ford told McLaglen he wasn’t needed the next day and he shouldn’t worry about his lines. Apparently Ford knew he would go out drinking if he thought he had the day off, but when Ford pulled him into film, the hung over and belligerent actor delivered exactly what Ford wanted. (And I would venture to guess McLaglen delivered something he would not have been able to on his own.) The Informer, more so than any other Hollywood movie of 1935, illustrates that the studio system wasn’t always oppressive of a great director’s vision.