Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Informer (1935)

The Informer (John Ford, 1935) John Ford's first Academy Award for Best Director (of four, ultimately and specifically) was for this underdog of a movie that was a pet project for Ford. His studio, RKO, didn't like the idea; it had been filmed before without any box office success, and the "suits" worried that nobody would go see a depressing movie encompassing a "dark night of the soul" with an unsympathetic protagonist.
But, Ford promised to bring the film in on-time and on budget—20 days and $243,000—and was aided immeasurably by a joint conference of artisans (including composer Max Steiner, photographer Joseph H. August, set designer Van Nest Polglase and screenwriter Dudley Nichols) before any scripting was done. "This, to my mind", said Nichols "is the proper way to approach a film production-and it is, alas, the only time in 25 years I have known it to be done: a group discussion before a line of the script is written." Nichols wrote the first—and only—draft of the script in six days aboard Ford's schooner, The Araner.
It tells the story of a night in the life of "Gypo" Nolan (
Victor McLaglen—who won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance), an Irish mug with nothing going for him. Out of work and kicked out of the IRA for not killing a targeted constabulary, he's more than a wee bit desperate and his mood is made any better when his streetwalker-girlfriend (Margot Grahame) trying to pick up a customer. He man-handles the "john" and only gets grief from Katie because she wants to get out of Ireland and just needs 10 pounds to book a steamer to the States. A chance encounter with Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) on the run from the Black and Tan and trying to make it home to his wife and sister, gives Gypo the idea that turning in his friend could solve all his problems; £20 could book passage to the States for both him and Katie Madden.
When the RIC go to his mother's house to arrest him, Frankie is killed while resisting arrest.
Gypo picks up his blood money from the contemptuous police and the first thing he does his buy a bottle of whiskey and tells a suspicious Katie that he got the money from rolling a sailor. But, at Frankie's wake, his drunkenness makes him less careful, spilling coins and handing pound notes to patrons, and the IRA begin to suspect that the newly-flush Gypo may not be so innocent after all, if only they can find the proof.
It is a through-line of Irish literature that desperation and temptation can turn a St. Peter into a Judas (because the Bible tells us so), and as twee and leprechaun-y as the culture can be, there is also the darkness of the guilt hangover, which can drive even the most self-righteous Irishman to his penitent knees. Director Ford knew full well the cycle, enjoying his grog and cursing his weakness, especially when he'd done someone wrong (and it was a tradition on a Ford set that every day one actor would be designated in "the barrel" for abuse—usually John Wayne whose complex father-son relationship with "Pappy" Ford made him a frequent target*). Then would come the regretful tears if reprimanded and the self-imposed penance of humiliation. And then...after a time...the cycle would start again. One reads Maureen O'Hara's autobiography ("Tis Herself," published in 2004) with horror regarding Ford's mood swings. "Love/Hate" are two sides of a coin, but despite that, it was currency that Ford's circle never wanted to toss.
It may be hard to understand. But, then one looks at the craftsmanship of The Informer, impeccably composed, draped perpetually in a fog of war, with its rawness of emotion and understand why his collaborators would always keep that lucky coin and never let it go. They knew, with Ford, they potentially could be doing their finest work, and doesn't one always suffer for art? Loyalty is, after all, earned (not given), but it is also a contract of endurance and the greatest and hardest lesson to learn of it is to whom you bestow its precious gift...and to whom it is valued. It is a trust and to betray it invites eternal damnation.
One watches The Informer contemplating these things and how life can inform art—the issues of loyalty and betrayal must have haunted Ford during this while he pushed for the project, making it personal, as if making a guilty trip to a confessional and paying some form of emotional penance.
For his part, when Ford was cooperative enough to provide an interviewer a straight answer, he would suggest that The Informer "lacked humor."
In 2018, The Informer was voted into The National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."
It has been reported that it is the favorite film of director Samuel Fuller.
St. Patrick's Day, 2022
* Ford was always in "command" of his sets and Wayne owed his career to Ford and suffered his humiliations out of respect for the "Old Man," even after tables had turned and Ford depended on Wayne's box-office draw to get projects made at the studios.

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