Directed by John Ford
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based upon the novel of the same name by Liam O’Flaherty
Starring Victor McLaglen, Margot Grahame, Wallace Ford, and Preston Foster
During the Communist witch-hunt, the rabidly anti-communist Cecil B. DeMille wanted to force the Director’s Guild to require its members to basically investigate the communist leanings of everybody who worked on their films. This came about when allegations were made that Director Guild of America president, Joseph L. Mankiewicz had communist sympathies. So, at a meeting of the guild, DeMille and his boys tried to run this bullshit through. Well, after the meeting had been going a while, and after DeMille’s goons spent a good long time talking shit about Mankiewicz, John Ford decided he’d had enough and took the floor to defend Mankiewicz, famously saying:
“My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille — and he certainly knows how to give it to them. But I don’t like you, C.B. I don’t like what you stand for, and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.”
Every time I read that quote I can’t help thinking that, while the communist witch-hunt and Hollywood blacklist might have ruined the lives of many good people, at least we were left with the indelible moments where one great artist calls another ‘great’ artist a sonofabitch to their face. Of course, quippy quotes is hardly a good trade-off for ruining the careers of good people, so there’s that.
Aside from the verbal smackdown John Ford laid out there, the quote is famous now for it’s amazing humility. After all, by the time he’d made that statement John Ford was already a multi-Oscar winner, and one of the most respected filmmakers in the world, so to verbally own himself as ‘only’ a director of westerns is fairly astounding. It’s almost as if Ford knew that, no matter what else he did in life, the lasting legacy for him in film would be from his westerns.
The curious thing about John Ford is that, despite his reputation for Westerns, of the six Oscars Ford won – four for Best Director, two for documentaries – not one was for a western. Which means that, though he’s remembered as a director of westerns today, to remember him only for those films ignores an entirely different side of Ford’s oeuvre, which stretched from the silent film era, all the way to the 1960s, and included not only westerns, but war pictures, comedies, biographies, melodramas, costume pictures, and documentaries.
Of course, another reading of this – and my preferred take – is that because Ford was a multi-Oscar winner by then, his opening line was actually faux humility and was meant only to needle Demille about his lack of Oscars. After all, Ford had five or six Oscars by that point and by saying he was ‘only’ a director of westerns seems a very subtle statement that the Oscars weren’t worth much in his life. Yet, he had them all, and the man who clearly wanted them – Demille – had none.
Either way it’s read, the statement will forever be one of the greatest burns in Hollywood history.
What’s It About?
Dublin, 1922. Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) was recently drummed out of the IRA after he has a moment of pity for a condemned man, so now he’s flat broke. Making matters worse, his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame) has to make ends meet by being a prostitute. When Katie floats the idea of emigrating to America, where they’ll certainly be better off, the only thing holding them back is lack of money. Except, an IRA friend of Gypo’s, Frankie (Wallace Ford), has a bounty on his head for murder, which pay enough for their travel. In a moment of weakness, Gypo rats Frankie out for the bounty, only to have Frankie killed during the arrest. Racked with guilt, Gypo proceeds to drink the money away, all the while trying to figure a way to avoid being outed as the informer to Frankie’s family, and to the IRA. In the end, Gypo can’t outrun his guilt, or the IRA, and winds up dead for his betrayal.
How Was It?
John Ford won six Oscars in his career and the first of them was for directing The Informer – his first nomination, his first win. Yes, the Oscar win is significant on its own, but more than being a transitional moment for Ford’s career, it feels like a transitional moment for film. After all, the first sound film from Hollywood appeared less than a decade before, and over the next few years Hollywood tried to grapple with that technology, wanting to make movies that were expansive, but also had full sound. Singing in the Rain is about the problems that arose when the sound equipment proved bulky and limiting and made movies incredibly studio-bound, not less-so. Moreover, Singing in the Rain highlighted the rough transition films went through from the acting of silent films, to the acting of sound films. After all, in the silent era the acting needed to be bigger to register with the audience. To be seen in the silent era was to be heard. However, once sound came in, the acting style of the silents looked ridiculous when paired with sound. Despite this, movies still had a certain sort of silent film sensibility about them, with emotions and performances pitched a little ‘louder’ than they otherwise needed to be. It’s at this point that The Informer is made, playing like the last gasp of silent film acting – in fact, given the film is told mostly wordless for long stretches, it easily could have been a silent film – and the first Hollywood with good, clean sound. It might not have been the actual transitional point, because most transitions happen along a continuum, but you can easily read in this film how Hollywood was shaking off the technological limits of the past, shaking off some of the primitive nature of film, and moving on to something else altogether.
For John Ford, The Informer feels like an explicit transition point in his career. While he would later be known as a great outdoor director, what with the wide vistas he favored in Monument Valley, there are no such vistas here. In fact, this film is almost explicitly confined, with the story taking place in alleys, and darkened streets, and in the small, low rooms of a pub. And the reason it feels confined is that, try as they might to make it seem genuine, the locations in The Informer are clearly all sets. The lighting and camerawork does what it can to disguise it, but it’s quite unlike what would come later for Ford. In this way, The Informer almost feels like he’s visually shaking off the past and getting ready to move into the next phase of his career. Where he did his best to expand the canvas of film beyond its literal edges.
But in the same way, The Informer feels expansive to the characters, as if the limits of the sets and the setting of the story allowed Ford more room to open the characters up, particularly with respect to the interiority of the individual. In service of this, Ford plays with the visuals, constantly superimposing other images into the frame to show us the inner workings of the characters, particularly the way Gypo sees Frankie’s wanted poster on just about every blank wall he looks at, as if the poster is haunting him. For a man who’d later come to be known as a director of films where interior life wasn’t the most prized possession, that The Informer is anchored by a main character who is driven by his interiority, feels revolutionary. It also feels like a unicorn.
That all said, The Informer does work with a heavy-hand. From the beginning we know the story is going to have Biblical connotations, starting as it does with a quote about Judas selling out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. But even though the film casts Gypo as Judas is does not castigate him his choice, nor present him as callous and greedy. Instead, it tries to understand the complexities of his motivations, particularly his desperation. Moreover, the movie shows how guilt tortures Gypo worse than any other fate. Of course, the movie makes sure to drive home the Biblical point at the end when, just before Gypo drops dead from the shot to his belly, he looks up at a carving of Jesus and speaks to it as if Jesus were Frankie. If we hadn’t already figured out all the Biblical allusions before, they are unmistakable at the end.
The other full circle moment the film makes is with respect to Gypo’s execution. See, early on Gypo tells a story of when he was still in the IRA and the men all drew straws to see who was going to execute a certain man. Naturally, Gypo drew the short straw. But, when the moment came to do it, he felt pity for the man and held off long enough for the man to escape. This is what led to Gypo being drummed out of the IRA. No surprise that, after Gypo has confessed his place as the informer in Frankie’s death, we see men drawing straws on who is going to be the one to execute him. We also see Gypo escape, literally casting the one-time executioner into the role of the condemned man, making the same desperate escape.
Victor McLaglen won Best Actor for the role, which is emotional. Though he performs in that showy way that was prevalent at the times – the need to be big in order to register with audiences didn’t die with silent films – he does it to good affect. Yes, occasionally he borders on hammy, but when he does it feels true to the character – Gypo is a blustery showboat, and should be played that way. And when it has to get emotional and honest, the film does it’s part to make Gypo’s eyes look appropriately wet. That all said, where McLaglen shines is in the drunk acting. Yes, it’s said he actually got drunk to perform some of these scenes, but if that’s so that makes the performance in those moments all the more impressive. After all, not only does McLaglen have to play drunk, but he also has to convincingly play a drunk who is doing his best to scheme his way out of trouble and failing. It’s a high wire McLaglen treads in those scenes, and he is top notch. Better, Ford is generous to McLaglen throughout. He does not shoot the man as a brute, but shoots him as a tortured soul, and in the end, when Gypo has reached the height of his guilt and penance, Ford shoots him like he’s an angel, with soft lighting on his face, and key lights in his eyes. It’s a shot right out of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and it was proof positive that if there was nothing else you could say about Ford, it’s that he always took care of his actors.
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