Informer, The (1935)
Release Date: May 24th, 1935 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Ford Actors: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame, Wallace Ford, Una O’Connor, J.M. Kerrigan, Joseph Sauers, Donald Meek
he opening credit sequence makes use of stark shadows and silhouettes like a film noir (long before such a genre specification was used), complete with ominous music by Max Steiner. It transitions to a boy singing on the street corner, with no other voices heard. Even when new characters are introduced, there’s still utter silence; communication takes place entirely through expressions. It’s more than five minutes before Katie Madden (Margot Grahame) finally cries out Gypo’s name when he disapproves of the company she’s keeping. Brilliantly, exposition is kept to a minimum – here and throughout – largely because “The Informer” is competent enough to show actions rather than resorting to verbally explaining them (despite a lack of historical context, since audiences are already supposed to know about the Irish War of Independence).
In Dublin in 1922, Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) spies a poster of Frankie McPhillip, proclaiming a 20-pound reward on his head for murder. Gypo knows the man, and decides to rip the notice from the brick wall – initially out of disgust for the surely unwarranted declaration. But, thanks to insinuating circumstances, the paper keeps entering his thoughts – whether from literally blowing past him on the street or when additional advertisements suggest that 20 pounds is all it would take to escape from the pitiful conditions he currently endures.
Having been on the run for six months, Frankie (Wallace Ford) catches up with Gypo at the most inconvenient of times – when Gypo is completely broke and desperate for a bit of cash to flee hard times. Just as Frankie reunites with his mother (Una O’Connor) and his sister (Heather Angel), Gypo reports to the police, ratting on McPhillip’s secretive rendezvous. Within minutes, a shootout initiates, with Frankie taking down another four or so of the Black and Tans before he’s finally stopped with an unleashing of submachine gun bullets.
“Did somebody die and leave you a pot of gold?” It’s here that the story really starts, as guilt governs every subsequent venture Gypo undertakes. He’s instantly plagued by his choice, quick to admit to something as farfetched as the murder of an American sailor, rather than to even think of uttering the word “informer.” As anticipated, his newfound wealth doesn’t bring him happiness or relief. The first expenditure – on a bottle of whiskey – certainly can’t comfort him as much as he’d hoped. As paranoia sets in, with every peeping eye decidedly suspicious of Gypo’s financial break, his behavior becomes a telltale sign of answerability.
His ordeal escalates when he’s assigned by an IRA commandant (Preston Foster) to identify the informer (in return for reinstatement into the group after a dishonorable discharge), which forces him to then point the finger at anyone he can think of (including Donald Meek as a greatly sympathetic little tailor). This irony, along with the repetitious imagery of the wanted poster – assuming the role of a manifested conscience weighing heavily on Gypo – is entirely unsubtle. The use of a quote at the start (“Then Judas repented himself – and cast down the thirty pieces of silver – and departed”) is similarly graceless, clearly defining the course the story and characters will take (and its biblical, parabolic tragedies), suggesting, insultingly, that without such clues, audiences would be lost as to the purpose of it all. Nevertheless, McLaglen is perfect in the lead – a mountainous, uncontrollable ruffian – in a destructive (and self-destructive), chaotic, downward spiral. Judgment is coming – and director John Ford handles the suspense and inevitable, impending downfall (complete with kangaroo court proceedings) with precision and palpable tension.
– Mike Massie