Journey with me to 1935, when sound cinema had not yet ended its first decade of life, and Hollywood was still a home to experimentation and radicalism. When a 41-year-old man, famed for directing Westerns, produced one of the most unique and artistic films in the history of American moviemaking, a film that would be heralded upon its release as the first masterpiece of the sound era (not true, but who's counting?).
By this time, Sean Aloysius O'Fearna, the son of Irish immigrants, had made dozens of films already under the adopted name of John Ford, and was well on his way to becoming a national cinematic treasure. Perhaps, then, it should not be a surprise that he would have the bravado required to throw out all of the rules, in the process of directing one of the only American films in history to directly grapple with the torments between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Upon its release, The Informer would quickly cement his name as one of the masters of his field, for it spoke in a visual language so perfect to itself and so unique that even Ford would never seek to recreate it precisely. If not the first masterpiece of American sound cinema, it is a masterpiece nonetheless.
In Dublin, 1922, a great slab of a man, dressed in a ratty jacket and a tweed cap, shuffles through the foggy night. We will soon learn that this is Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen), a dim-witted ex-IRA muscle. On this night, Gypo is simply looking for enough money to get food and drink in his stomach, trying to scrape by to meet one more day. An offhand remark by his girlfriend Kate (Margot Grahame) and the chance discovery of a poster proclaiming the £20 reward on his friend Frankie's head lead Gypo to a terrible choice: he informs on Frankie, pockets the money, and proceeds to spend a restless night running from the demon guilt.
It is a dark story of conspiracy and treachery, and to tell it, Ford and cinematographer Joseph August crafted an aggressive scheme of shadows and silhouettes, right from the very first shot. Throughout the film, shadows will constantly fall upon Gypo's face, blocking him out from view, remind us that he is little more than a terrified animal fleeing detection. Which leads to an even bolder directorial flourish: the implication of light as an element of tension. There is an early scene where a British policeman, a black and tan, is shining his flashlight over Frankie's wanted poster, mere feet from Gypo's hiding place, and like the barrels that represent the shark in Jaws, the light represents the unseen and feared cop, as well as illuminating the very poster that represents Gypo's fall into hell (it has him coming and going, really). Shadows represent Gypo's capture, light represents his detection, and there's nowhere else to go besides light and dark, not in a film whose cinematography so brutally prohibits the existence of greys.
Even in the few places where light does not represent capture, that is to say certain of the interiors, Ford does not permit his character any respite. McLaglen was not a small man at 6'3" and his height was intensified by constant low camera angles - oh Ford, you and your shocking camera angles! Such a huge part of why you're my favorite American filmmaker of all time, but that is a different essay - yes, his height was intensified by low angles such that every interior space seems suffocating and claustrophobic. Only in Kate's apartment, when McLaglen is on the floor and shot from above, does Gypo seem to be in comfort.
With the basic mood set by the visuals, the next place Ford goes to establish Gypo's psychological anguish is the editing, oddly enough (and yet not odd at all - no classic Hollywood director used editing so intentionally as Ford). For a film of this vintage, the editing is often surprisingly fast-paced, frantic you might say, and most of the cuts are within space that we can already see; that is, the editing pattern reinforces confinement, rather than suggesting paths out. If the compositions make Gypo look trapped, the editing make the audience feel trapped.
Beyond this, there is a simple but unusual reliance on a certain type of dissolve, in which portions of the frame are covered with what I can only think of as the physical manifestation of Gypo's subconscious. It's a technique that to my deeply imperfect knowledge hadn't been used much in Hollywood cinema in the eight years since F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, and it was that realization that clued me in to what I think should have been obvious: the profound debt that The Informer owes to the German Expressionists, in everything from its lighting to its editing to some of the more avant-garde sets.
This is perfectly reasonable, of course - in 1935, there hadn't yet been a movement that so perfectly captured the terror of the psyche as the Expressionists, and The Informer is ultimately all about the terror inside Gypo's soul. But for a director at that time to adopt that language is quite surprising to me: American sound cinema hadn't branched out into that precise kind of anti-realism except in some isolated horror genre experiments, and The Informer is a deeply realistic political tale. The mixture of narrative realism with formal expressionism didn't become a movement in this country until the early 1940s and the birth of film noir; and while everybody understands the link between that style and the German silents in the '20s, I at least had never suspected that there was a bridge in the '30s. The Informer, I think, is that bridge.
The historical development of film style is certainly not as important as I want it to be, which brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to the story. Superficially, it's the world's most obvious metaphor for Judas betraying Christ (and when I say "superficial" I mean, "Ford really makes sure we get it, up to and including by use of a title card"), but more simply and honestly, it's about a foolish person (which at times describes every one of us) making a bad choice in haste, and letting that choice gnaw at him. The trappings of the film - the IRA, the black and tans - are just that, trappings, even if they are politically brave. The last image of the film is of a mother, and that, in my analysis, speaks to the true theme of The Informer: the collision of human weakness and domestic love and forgiveness, and the terrible way that love and destruction almost always follow one on the other.
Oscar Wins: Best Director, John Ford
-Best Actor, Victor McLaglen
-Best Score, Max Steiner
-Best Screenplay, Dudley Nichols
Other Nominations: Best Picture
-Best Film Editing, George Hively
And how. It was the first of Ford's record four directing Oscars, and I'm not gonna say that it's the best work of his career, exactly, but I'm not going to get all up on someone's case for saying that it is (I still like his Westerns best, for which he won zero awards). There's creative energy to burn here, and the other 2.5 nominees (Frank Lloyd for Mutiny on the Bounty, Henry Hathaway for The Lives of a Bengal Dancer and Michael Curtiz, written-in to a second place appearance for Captain Blood) are in a different, much lower class.
The leitmotif-heavy score is certainly deserving as well (probably the always-brilliant Steiner's best, after the iconic Casablanca), and I already spoke to my love for the editing, which leaves: the screenplay, which is actually kind of weak and preachy. The best of the four nominees (mirroring the Director slate, weirdly)? Yeah, I suppose, but I hope it's not really the best 1935 had to offer.
As for Victor McLaglen, he seems to have been graced by the Academy's love for drunk roles. Honestly, it's a pretty one-note performance, although he gets some truly nice moments in at the end, and to call it better than nominees Clark Gable or Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty is difficult to swallow.
Believe it or not, I don't think I'd have given it Best Picture; over the winner, Mutiny on the Bounty, sure, but another nominee that year was the greatest of all ten Astaire-Rogers films, Top Hat, and all the revolutionary visual bravura in the world doesn't quite match the accomplishment of "Cheek to Cheek."
-Best Cinematography? There were only four nominees, for chrissakes. Although I haven't seen any of them, so maybe I should keep my mouth shut.
Link to Oscar Present
Martin Scorsese has never hidden the extraordinary esteem in which he holds John Ford, and references to the old master pepper his films; and there is a scene in The Departed that prominently features The Informer playing on a television. Crafty, Marty. Crafty.