Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Informer

THE INFORMER        B+                   
USA  (91 mi)  1935  d:  John Ford
The influence of German filmmaker F.W. Murnau is renowned, who emigrated to Hollywood in 1926, producing SUNRISE (1927), listed at #5 among the greatest films ever made in the recent BFI Sight & Sound poll in 2012 (The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time | British Film Institute), and certainly American filmmaker John Ford was highly impressed by the German Expressionist movement of the 1920’s, featuring dramatically stylized and symbolic films, perhaps best represented in Ford’s murky adaptation of Eugene O’Neill Sea Plays in The Long Voyage Home (1940), almost completely told through light and shadow, where humans are mere shadows on the wall, evocative of Plato’s allegory of the cave.  THE INFORMER has a similar claustrophobic feel of impoverished Dublin streets literally saturated in a constant blanket of fog, where the low budget production uses this technique to cover the cheaply designed sets, creating a gloomy atmosphere of poverty and despair that pervades throughout the entire picture, where the real brilliance of the film shot by cinematographer Joe August is the moody haze of confusion clouding the better judgment of the lead character, Gypo Nolan, played by Ford favorite Victor McLaglen.  The film is based on Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 prize winning novel, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, adapted by Dudley Nichols, who also adapted O’Neil’s Sea Plays.  The Irish source material defines both films, O’Neill through the broken dreams continually haunting men at sea, while O’Flaherty examines one man’s guilty conscience and his anguished effort to escape the invasive forces of doom, a reference to the war-torn Irish nation that was continually caught up in a bloody confrontation between the Irish Republican Army and the Black and Tan British forces.  Ford had an especially close relationship with his screenwriters, working with Frank Nugent and Dudley Nichols on 24 feature films, personally selecting and training them to develop an instinctive understanding of his style, where Nichols in particular helped elevate the depth of his work that was lacking during the Silent period, heightening the sense of drama.  The film was not an instant success, but received glowing critical reviews afterwards, winning Academy Awards for Ford as Best Director, Nichols for Best Screenplay (but he refused the Oscar due to a Screen Writers Guild strike at the time), McLaglen for Best Actor, and Max Steiner for Best Music, bringing Ford a critical reputation that he would sustain throughout his career, becoming one of the iconic leaders of the industry.  This film has fallen out of favor from the heavily idealized portrait of the IRA as the common man’s alternative to British oppression, but it’s one of the smaller, more psychologically interior films Ford ever made, using expressive visuals to enhance the drama, eventually discarding his interest in expressionism for his love of location shooting, framing his characters against the backdrop of the rugged Western frontier. 

Ford’s personal connection to Ireland was through his parents, both Irish-born, where there’s some reason to believe McLaglen’s robust portrait of a heavy drinker with a volatile temper, but also an affable charm, is based on his own father.  Ironically, McLaglen wasn’t even Irish, but was born in England, becoming a prizefighter who actually fought Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson before becoming an American actor.  The only real Irishman in the film is J.M. Kerrigan, a little man who plays the same despicable freeloader role in The Long Voyage Home (1940), a repugnant, slimy hanger-on to anyone with money in their pocket.  But the film belongs to McLaglen, who became known for playing lovable drunks, who was apparently bullied by the director into giving a great performance, often told by Ford he was off schedule, where McLaglen was prone to drink in his down time, but would then be called back to the set, forcing him to work in a semi-drunken condition, often filming what the actor thought were rehearsals, appearing overly weary, bewildered and confused, searching for his lines, which is exactly what Ford was looking for.  This story may be more of the myth and John Ford lore that seems to accompany his films, but McLaglen’s physically demanding performance dominates the screen, playing the well-intentioned but dim-witted Gypo as a big brute who loves to be the center of attention, a gentle giant with a soft spot for tenderness, whose weakness is he can’t resist flattery.  Outraged to find his best girl Katie (Margot Grahame) reduced to prostitution to pay her bills, he’s equally humiliated by getting thrown out of the IRA for refusing to shoot a traitor, especially someone he’s known from the neighborhood.  But when he sees a poster offering twenty pounds (equivalent to over a thousand dollars today) for the whereabouts of IRA gunman Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), probably Gypo’s best friend, he gets delusions of grandeur, dreaming of marriage and an ocean voyage, especially when the poster is right next to a travel agency advertisement offering voyages to America for only ten pounds, which is one of Katie’s dreams, as she wants a better life.  Making up his mind that he’ll do it for her, Gypo reluctantly turns in his friend, who is killed instantly when the Black and Tans go to pick him up.  Conscience-stricken and ashamed, he curls into the corner of a saloon with a whisky bottle quickly drinking himself into a stupor. 

Gypo descends into a nightmarish delirium of human degradation, goaded on by the irrepressible cynicism of J.M. Kerrigan, the Iago-like voice that purrs niceties in his ear about what a popular guy you are when you buy everyone a drink, and a meal, and then more drinks, getting more ploughed and his pockets emptied as the night progresses.  Nonetheless, for a moment at least, he’s King Gypo, the most generous guy in town, which quickly draws the attention of the IRA, who suspect Frankie was killed by an informer and are counting every penny that Gypo spends.  All drink and bluster, the big lout remains sympathetic even as his actions are contemptible, as inside he’s dying of remorse.  Like Fritz Lang’s M (1931), where it’s the criminals themselves who track down a detestable child murderer and force him to stand trial before a jury of his peers, Gypo is brought before an IRA tribunal, where his plan to pin it all on some other pitiful chump falls apart and he’s left to explain the unexplainable, where half mad with fear, McLaglen is at his wits end trying to find any words that make sense to the people standing in that crowded basement room, but only ends up incriminating himself.  The sickening descent into the Hell of one’s conscience is a road paved with guilt and personal torment, where McLaglen is a pitiful sight, pitied by all who are embarrassed by what he stands for, a coward, a bully, an alcoholic, expressing weakness, mistakes, human frailty, where there’s no place for that when fighting stronger, better financed, and better organized forces of tyranny with only political slogans and a few firearms.  Shot in just 17 days, the film was director Sam Fuller’s favorite movie, filled with melodramatic overreach, made during a time when sound cinema had not yet discovered its own identity from the Silent era, as acting was just as exaggerated.  Drenching the toxic atmosphere with such a pervasive feeling of doom, characters seen through the haze choking on their own murderous intentions only enhance the tragic nature of the human condition.  For its time, the film is unmistakably bleak, but the warmth and childlike innocence of McLaglen’s Gypo, played as an everyman, has a heart rendering quality to it that feels authentic and sincere, especially considering the horrible aftermath of the Irish Civil War in the 1920’s which brought no historical resolution, only ruthlessness and brutality, leaving a desolate looking future in a divided nation without any hope of peace or reconciliation. 

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