The Informer (1935, John Ford)
John Ford is by no means the only director whose entire output, however varied, has been pared down to a single genre; think of Hitchcock and Romero and Sturges, for starters. It’s partially these mens’ own doing, for they became so resourceful at an expansive level of personal expression in their mode of filmmaking. Ford’s westerns are, nearly inarguably, much more than just westerns. But there was a time in the ’30s and ’40s when Ford’s prestige studio pictures were of a different fabric. It’s troubling that this onetime classic, an Oscar winner for Best Director, has now become something close to a forgotten picture. For the general film buff, it proves a rollicking and sinister entertainment; but for the fan of this director’s output, it mst be something of a revelation — presenting Ford as underworld documentarian, as a filmmaker as infected by German expressionism as many of his peers, and as creator of something resembling a proto-noir, despite its fairly streamlined plot.
The Informer‘s story runs over the course of a single, fraught night in the life of IRA members Gypo (Victor McLaglen, showy but unforgettable) and Frankie (Wallace Ford) — one which will prove Frankie’s last on earth. That’s because dead-broke Gypo, against all of his conscience, sees dollars in his eyes after he notes his trusted friend Frankie’s face on a Wanted poster. Over the next few hours, after his disclosure to the police about Frankie’s location, he runs through cycles of denial and grief and self-contempt until his world finally implodes; nearly everyone, it seems, knows he did it — and anyone who doesn’t cast a shameful and suspicious eye on him, it seems, only amps up his feeling of worthlessness even as he guzzles the night away in a bar with his bounty.
Despite the concise senario, the picture is not as tight as you’d expect for 90 minutes — like seemingly every Ford film, it extrapolates and rambles in nearly unrelated directions, here with somewhat incongruous extended comic sequences about Gypo’s drunkenness; I accept that this is part and parcel with Ford’s work from major to minor but I admit I’m still getting used to it. (So there’s a chance this will work better for me whenever I revisit it.) As it is, the midsection sags with a sense of staginess and endless beating of a horse. We are made to easily comprehend both Gypo’s reason for acting out and his reason for hating himself for it and there isn’t much elaboration warranted — so after the bravura sequence of the shootout at Frankie’s mother’s house (his death occurs at the hands of the police, heartbreakingly in front of his family), what we have mostly to admire are the shadows and deep blacks and imposing sets, and the flamboyant dread of McLaglen’s performance.
The exposition about the Troubles is handled marvelously — you only gradually come to understand why the police and the Republican Army are at odds, as well it should be; the confusion is instructive, even as it occasions an eerily appropriate borrowing of dialogue from Fritz Lang’s M. Ford might be on shaky ground in terms of pacing, but he seems to revel in this environment, even if his attempts at deep psychological torment are far more confident out at Monument Valley.
It’s interesting how The Informer shuffles around a lot of things that would eventually become thriller conventions without actually being a thriller — the nervous foggy streets, the dusk-to-dawn plotting, the tension and suspense of both fear of being found out and fear that the hero won’t be found out — and manages in all of its conflicting sympathies to create the rare situation (for about half an hour, no less) whereby you have (or at least, I had) no idea how things are going to be resolved.
Therein lies the disappointment: they’re resolved in a literal “come to Jesus” moment, in the throes of death, which to me is a copout. But this is a pretty fascinating film — especially visually, with all its debt to Murnau and Lang — and as non-western Fords go, it’s miles beyond The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley for me.