A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Informer (John Ford, 1935)

Time has not been kind to The Informer, though it was celebrated as a masterpiece at the time, and won four Academy Awards: John Ford for director, Victor McLaglen for best actor, Dudley Nichols for best screenplay, and Max Steiner for score.* Today, The Informer looks a little stiff and stagy and McLaglen's performance vastly overdone. The film invites comparison to much better manhunt films like Fritz Lang's M (1931) and especially Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947), which also takes the Irish revolution for its subject. Ford has a way of overstating things, such as the constant visions that Gypo Nolan (McLaglen) has of the "Wanted" poster that inspired him to inform against Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford). And the final scene in the church now feels impossibly mawkish: Frankie's mother (Una O'Connor), veiled and -- thanks to cinematographer Joseph H. August's lighting -- as beatific as a Raphael madonna, forgives Gypo, who then expires before a crucifix proclaiming, "Frankie! Your mother forgives me!" It has to be said, though, that The Informer is full of great energy, and some of the supporting performances, like J.M. Kerrigan's Terry, who sponges off of the newly flush Gypo, or May Boley as the madam of a Production Coded brothel, are vivid and colorful. McLaglen's performance lacks the kind of nuance that would help us see Gypo as more than just a drunken loudmouth with no moral compass, which would make the ending feel less unearned, but you can't take your eyes off of him even when you wish you could. Legend has it that Ford kept McLaglen liquored up throughout the film to get the performance he wanted, but there are many long takes and ensemble scenes that suggest to me that McLaglen was more in control of himself than the legend suggests.

*It also contributed to Oscar statistics: This was the first of Ford's record-setting Oscar wins as director. The others were for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). (None of Ford's wins were for the genre with which is is most associated, the Western.) And Nichols became the first person to decline an Oscar: As a member of the Screen Writers Guild, Nichols was suspicious of the Academy because it had been founded in part as an attempt by the film industry to reduce the influence of unions. After the Academy began to disassociate itself from union-busting efforts, Nichols quietly accepted the award.