Last year I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by reviewing a film that was perhaps John Ford’s favorite, The Quiet Man; this year I will delve into another of his favorites The award winning Informer.
In 1933 Sean Martin Aloysius O’Feeney, also known as John Ford, bought the rights to his cousin Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel set in 1923 Dublin, during Irish Civil War. The Informer is a dark tale about betrayal and guilt that ends in redemption; a classic conflict between idealism and human weakness. It was a theme close to Ford’s heart; and he pitched it to all the studios even though the novel had already been filmed in Britain in 1929. Because of a depressing plot as well as politically sensitive content Ford was turned down by Fox, Columbia, M-G-M, Paramount and Warner Brothers. Ford claimed however that his “old pal” fellow Irishman and CEO of RKO, Joseph Kennedy (Father of President Kennedy) gave him the green light when he promised he would be able to bring the film in under $250,000.
With such a limited budget RKO’s brilliant art director Van Nest Polgese had to use all of his formidable powers to build canvas flats to convince us that we are back in the 1920’s Irish Capital. Master cinematographer Joseph August creatively used fog and backlighting to disguise the lack of sets. Ford did not have a problem with the lack of resources of the short 18 day shooting schedule. He claimed it was “The easiest film I ever directed.” He claimed he could have made it for half the budget.
The Informer tells a Dostoyevsky-like story of oafish and impoverished Gypo Nolan, a renegade Irish Communist who betrays his friend Frankie Mc Phillip, who is wanted for murder by the British. This all takes place in one fog-filled evening.
Ford and perhaps his favorite screenwriter Dudley Nichols spent several weeks working on the script on Ford’s yacht Araner. According to John Wayne, Ford was always trimming Nichol’s “flowery language” trying to use as few words as possible to convey the message. He talks of one of the most famous scenes in the film where the British officer pays of McLaglen and “when Ford had finished with the scene, it was a silent scene.”
Gypo was a huge, brutish man with marginal intelligence. O’Flaherty says he was like “some primeval monster just risen from the slime which all things had their origin.” Ford wanted British actor Victor McLaglen for the role. But RKO had different ideas. Ford recalled that “The studio spent weeks trying to foist better known heavies on me. But I knew Vic could to the job…and you saw the performance he gave.” Ford expertly handled the actor. Before the most important scene, the trial; he tricked McLaglen. The day before the shoot, he arranged to send him to a party, telling him he could let his hair down, since they would not need him tomorrow. Ford called the abjectly hung-over actor the next morning, telling him the shoot was on. He arrived, stumbling and stammering through the scene; creating exactly the performance Ford was after.
McLaglen received the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Informer, Ford, best director, Dudley Nichols for Best Screenplay and Max Steiner for Best Original Score.
Perhaps the most memorable scene involves the symbol of his betrayal the wanted poster of Frankie. Gypo rips the poster down and tears it up, but the wind grabs it and it follows him eerily down the street finally attaching itself to his leg.
Ford Biographer Joseph McBride states that “While Ford’s emphasis is more psychological than political, his shrewd evocation of the atmosphere of betrayal expresses a deeper, more poetic truth about Irish society.”
Ford was always a great admirer of the German Expressionist film makers such as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. He loved their surreal use of lighting. He called Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song Two Humans “The greatest picture that has been produced.” Ford and cinematographer August were able create a “state of mind by orchestrating the interplay of light and shade.” He had inadvertently created perhaps the first “Art Movie.”
Producer Darryl Zanuck called The Informer “A visual masterpiece almost unparalleled in cinema history.”