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theinformer.gif 43.4 KThe Informer

(American, 1935, 91 minutes, b/w, 16 mm)

Directed by John Ford

Victor McLaglen . . . . . . . . . . Gypo Nolan
Heather Angel . . . . . . . . . . Mary McPhillip
Preston Foster . . . . . . . . . . Dan Gallagher
Margot Grahame . . . . . . . . . . Katie Madden
Wallace Ford . . . . . . . . . . Frankie McPhillip

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

THE INFORMER, John Ford's darkly expressionist saga of the IRA set in 1922 Dublin, was one of the most honored films of its time. A winner of countless awards, including both the Oscar and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Direction, THE INFORMER was hailed by critics as evidence of a new-found maturity in an industry which had only recently been beset by charges of shallowness and pornography. The film was one of four Ford made at RKO studios in the middle 1930's. The quartet is a varied collection of films which grapple with Scottish, Irish, and English colonial politics, and the multifarious sources and manifestations of the longing, discontent, and prejudices which that triad of unique but dependent cultures had generated within itself over many years. There was 1934's THE LOST PATROL, the tale of the grim fortunes of a small British unit fighting unseen Arabs in the Mesopotamian desert in World War I. THE INFORMER, the most celebrated of this group of films, followed in 1935. Then, in 1936, came the ambitious MARY OF SCOTLAND with Katherine Hepburn in the leading role. Finally, later that same year, there was THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS, from Sean O'Casey's tragic play about the Irish Rebellion. Of the group, critics saw the THE LOST PATROL as most clearly allegorical. With its overtones of religious faith and doubt, and its image of the shrinking, desperate Empire as the patrol is whittled down by unseen snipers, THE LOST PATROL was one of Ford's most serious works. But each of Ford's 'RKO four' shows us a director making one of the hardest shifts in movies: from craftsman to intellectual. In MARY OF SCOTLAND, Ford seeks to untangle the court intrigues and romances of one of Scotland's most dire historical moments. And in THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS, he confronts head-on the most awful, beautiful moment in 20th century Ireland: the doomed Easter Rising of 1920.

But it would be in THE INFORMER, based on Liam O'Flaherty's novel that Ford would make his most integrated statement about the relationship of the individual to the sweep of history. Ford, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and cinematographer Joseph August determined to use the camera as a narrator. Making a virtue of the film's low budget--shot in three weeks at $250,000, THE INFORMER was the cheapest-possible "A" film--Ford had his scene designers, Van Nest Polgalse and Charles Kirk, "fog in" the set to mask the cheap painted backdrops and structures. So thickly does the fog blanket this cinematic Dublin that the film becomes a murky, atmospheric maze, perfectly representing the confusion over ethics and politics that shape the film into an essay on modern Ireland.

As the lumbering Gypo Nolan, Ford cast the action star Victor McLaglen in a performance that used McLaglen's own bulk and hamminess to create one of the sound cinema's first authentic anti-heros. A one-time vaudeville and circus performer as well as a lesser prizefighter, McLaglen had also been one of the 'Great White Hopes' sent in to stop Black champion Jack Johnson. McLaglen lost in six rounds. As Gypo, McLaglen is a winner. His improvised dialogue in the trial sequence is high-key, and well-tuned to the desperation and suspense of the moment. McLaglen's Oscar for best actor that year was well-earned. By the end of the shoot he was jittery and exhausted from the emotional demands an uncompromising Ford had placed on him.

At first, THE INFORMER's revolutionary style of camerawork baffled the studio. Joseph P. Kennedy, a major investor in RKO's parent company, had urged the project on Ford. In the middle of shooting, Kennedy left and the film was suddenly orphaned, without a powerful advocate in the front office. To make matters worse, Ford's producer on the film was Cliff Reid, who was, in Ford's view, a thickheaded toady. (Reid may well have been the antagonist of the oft-told anecdote that has Ford responding to an agitated producer's complaint that he's behind schedule by tearing out 8 pages of the script, and saying quietly, "There. We're back on schedule now," in full view of cast and crew.) The film was briefly shut down, and then moved to a virtually abandoned sound stage. After a dismal preview--Ford was so devastated he left the theater and threw up--it looked as if the film would be consigned to a limited release and then forgotten. The intervention of critic Richard Watts, of the New York Herald Tribune helped Ford convince studio boss Merian C. Cooper that the film was worth a different advertising strategy than usual. THE INFORMER had started life as an almost casual production, a cheapie only one step up from Poverty Row. Now a campaign touted it as a prestige film adapted from a serious novel, and it worked. THE INFORMER was the surprise hit of the season for the struggling studio.

In later years Ford would come to denigrate his RKO films, including THE INFORMER. While working at RKO, Ford began his cycle of American history films at Twentieth Century-Fox with 1934's JUDGE PRIEST. It was a cycle that would climax with DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and YOUNG MR LINCOLN, and bring Ford renown as America's informal poet laureate of the cinema. In light of the colloquial simplicity of his Americana of the next decade, THE LOST PATROL would come to be seen as arch and overstated, MARY OF SCOTLAND stilted and too-earnest, and THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS simply too obscure. THE INFORMER suffered too. Its self-conscious, expressive spirituality seems arch by comparison to the thin-lipped stoicism of the Fox films, and out-of-synch with the more reserved style Ford later cultivated. But THE INFORMER warrants our attention as one of Ford's most emphatic and emotional works, and it makes the case for John Ford as one of the great and poetic Irish artists.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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