Informer (1935) dir. John Ford
Starring: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame
By Alan Bacchus
John Ford was, of course, best known for later pictures, namely his westerns for John Wayne, in addition to his award-winning non-westerns Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952). These films are part of his post Stagecoach (1939) career, which is indeed remarkable. He unequivocally earns his aura as a legendary studio auteur, a director with an unmistakable style and vision . There’s also an almost fairytale like simplicity to his stories, crystal clear themes of honour, brotherhood, redemption which resulting in a remarkably consistent body of work across 50+ years of filmmaking.
I haven’t seen all of John Ford’s pictures, and it would take a lifetime to do that (he made 75 pictured BEFORE The Informer), but if there were one to recommend starting with 1935’s The Informer would be it.
What we traditionally know as a ‘John Ford’ picture, an elegant combination of pathos, machoism and sentimentality, arguably began with The Informer, a character piece set in Ireland (Ford’s homeland) during the Irish fight for Independence in 1922.
Victor McLaglen plays the larger than life brutish Gypo Nolan whom we see at the opening of the film wrestling with a decision to rat out or ‘inform’ on his best friend Frankie McPhillip to the British. What’s the only thing that could come in between brotherhood? Love. In this case £20 which was a lot of money and enough for Nolan to pay for he and his girlfriend Katie to sail abroad to America for better opportunities. And so Ford, in a matter of minutes has presented his audience with all he needs to wring out his emotionally charged personal story of redemption.
Having ratted out Frankie, and subsequently seen him killed during his capture Nolan devolves into a lengthy depression fueled by an extended drunken bender. Even though his payout money is supposed to be for his girlfriend the money quickly burns a mighty big hole in his pocket. His guilty conscience takes over and he spends wildly, buying drinks and food for his village lads, a spree which soon puts him as a key suspect in Frankie’s capture and death. The farther down Nolan goes into despair the grander his eventual redemption will become.
Through the entire film we feel the weight of repression and depression of Nolan and his people. Ford’s rendering of the poverty stricken Dublin is dripping with moody texture. Ford’s fog filled streets and cobblestone roads wet from the permanent Irish mist creates some of his most beautiful and expressive compositions. It’s gloomy and murky but there’s still a liveliness among the people, an optimism which pushes through the brutal poverty and British subjugation. I was recently in Ireland and I felt this everywhere I went. And so with this feeling of cultural pride which every Irish man and woman holds for themselves, the gravitas of Nolan’s betrayal is made even more severe. And of course, the Catholic Church provides even another and even more impenetrable layer of guilt on Nolan. Nolan is doomed, but not before a final confrontation with Frankie’s family becomes the confession he needs to ascend into heaven and be accepted by God.
Perhaps this is a flowery way to write a review, but this is the feeling Ford brings forth through Victor McLaglen's performance. Nolan’s redemption is so powerful on a fundamental level of base moral conviction, it plays out like a cathartic religious experience, a thunderstorm of deeply affecting Hollywood melodrama and perhaps THE quintessential John Ford picture.