Saturday, January 16, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #9: The Informer

US, 1935. Directed by John Ford. Starring Victor McLaglen.

When we first bandied about this idea of watching and blogging as many films as possible in 2010, two things popped into my head. First, I would try not to watch films I'd already seen before so that most of my reactions could be fresh; at that point I'd already watched two old favourites (the W.C. Fields pictures) and since then I have rewatched a film I last saw roughly 20 years ago with new context that I didn't have at the time. Spy Kids 3 is my daughter's fault, and that kind of thing will be unavoidable. Second, I would try to watch as many films as possible this year that I'd long put off; movies I know I should see but have always put off for one reason or another.

First up in this category was John Ford's The Informer. There's no question why I always put this one off - it was well-reviewed at the time (the New York Film Critics Circle awarded it Best Picture of the Year in one unanimous ballot). But time has not been kind to the film's reputation. In spite of filmmaker Samuel Fuller declaring it his favourite film of all time, many reference books label it as unworthy of Ford's later work. Ford himself dismissed it as "without humour" when interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Set in 1922 Ireland, during the war of independence, The Informer chronicles several hours in the life of Gypo Nolan, a frequently drunken lunk who was kicked out of the IRA for going soft and refusing an order to execute a prisoner. Penniless and depressed that his true love has to eke out a living as a prostitute, Gypo is handed a dilemma when his best friend Frankie sneaks back int0 town on a foggy night, in spite of the £20 reward being offered for information leading to his capture. £20 is enough to secure passage for Gypo and his best gal to a new life in America, so he turns informer. Alas the first thing he does is buy some liquor, breaking open the floodgates of his conscience and he must spend the evening helping the local IRA honchos figure out who the stool pigeon is without giving himself away.

Gypo, as played by Victor McLaglen (who won an Oscar for his work), is a force of nature, an unforgettable movie character. In spite of Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols' obvious condemnation of Gypo's actions, he maintains our interest and sympathy because of the irrepressible humanity he projects, while all of the IRA men are dour, interchangable characters.

The photography of Joseph August deserves special mention. The Informer was extremely low-budget for a studio A-picture, and all shot on a miniscule soundstage. Yet one never feels it because of the noirish shadows and thick fog surrounding the action. The fog is especially powerful, especially as Gypo begins to feel closed in, where anything could be lurking only a few feet away and anyone could be watching him.

Lacking humour it may be, which does make it stand out a bit from Ford's other work, and arguably is a debit, especially with an ending that can charitibly be called overbaked. But it's a powerful work that holds the attention from beginning to end, generating considerable suspense both in the sense of wondering what will happen, but within ourselves asking what do we want to happen?

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