July 5, 2018
The Informer – UK, 1929
John Ford’s 1935 film The Informant, for which Ford won his first Academy Award for directing, is a fairly straightforward film. It has a central character, the likable but oafish Gypo Nolan, and it follows this character after he turns in his best friend to the police in exchange for money that he hopes to use to take his girlfriend to the United States. His actions become public, he becomes wrought with guilt, and the ending is pretty obvious. Arthur Robison’s The Informer, made just six years prior to Ford’s film is a much more layered story, with numerous double crossings, slow revelations, and an overarching sense of tragedy. Like Ford’s remake, it can really only end one way. Justice must be served, and I’m not talking about the kind involving a judge and 12-person jury.
Robinson’s film begins with the kind of tragic mistake that few characters ever truly recover from, especially during times of great animosity and uncertainty. In the aftermath of a chaotic shoot-out, a revolutionary named Francis McPhillip (Carl Harbord) accidentally shoots the chief of police. To spare the group from persecution, he is instructed to flee the city and become an outcast. Some time later, after learning that the authorities are still after him, he is given money and told to set sail for America. He is also instructed not to return to the city, but when does anyone ever follow that advice? So, on the eve of his departure, Francis sneaks back into the city, intent upon saying one last good bye to his mother and perhaps convincing the girl he loves to make the voyage abroad with him. Such acts rarely end well.
What follows is much more complex than what transpires in Ford’s remake, a film that in retrospect I may have slightly over-praised. There are multiple betrayals, emotional breakdowns, and one illicit offer that demonstrates just how high the stakes are. The enemy is not some overwhelming evil, but two much more human emotions: anger and jealousy, the kinds than can cause people to react first and think second. And no one in the film is immune to them. Certainly not Gypo Nolan (Lars Hanson), whose insecurities so severely overcome him that he finds himself in a police station with every intention of telling the police the whereabouts of his one-time best friend; and certainly not Katie Fox (Lya De Putti), whose own actions, regardless of her intent, only increase Gypo’s severe case of road rage, and whose own loose lips eventually contribute to the tragedy unfolding in front of us.
Robinson, who directed 20 films before his death at just 52 years of age, gets excellent performances from his cast. De Putti makes you feel her character’s angst and heartbreak, and Harbord gives his character the look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who knows that no assistance is coming. Modern audiences might quibble over the amount of time he hangs his head in a few scenes, but this was a common technique that actors from the silent period used to convey disappointment, so it is appropriate here. The truly hard work is assigned to Hanson, for parts like his can all too easily become parodies if not handled correctly. It helps that Hanson is tall and physically intimidating. It also helps that we first really see him in a jovial spirit, getting reading to eat dinner with Katie. We are immediately struck by his rather romantic nature, and it is this initial impression that augments the shock at his later actions. When Gypo’s emotions grow too big to contain, Hanson takes on the figure of one of those classic monster villains, with wide eyes, intense stares, and an almost zombie-like stride. It made me think that Gypo is unaware that he is heading straight to the police station.
Robinson also shows great talent behind the camera, in once scene, electing to have it follow Nolan as he stumbles his way along Ireland’s crowded streets. He also makes excellent use of shadows. In one scene, we see one on a door yelling insults; in another we see one creep up on McPhillip as he gazes upon his own wanted poster. Robinson also gives us one of the greatest cuts I can recall in movies, in which one person begins to write a name down and another person much farther away finishes it, giving audiences the ability to immediately contrast the purposes – and consequences – of each action. I also admired the way Robinson uses long passageways as a metaphor for the long road to forgiveness and redemption. In one example of this, Gypo must walk between two rows of mourners to get to McPhillip’s grieving mother, and one there, he is so overwrought with grief that he accidentally drops evidence of his guilt in front of the very people who mean him harm. Robinson has his camera follow this item, and then after Gypo picks it up again, we watch it as it goes first in the direction of McPhillip’s mother and then is clumsily and unwisely retuned to Gypo’s pocket.
It all leads to a tragic ending, but one that, like Ford’s version, ends on a note of forgiveness. However, it would be wrong to describe it as a happy ending. After all, just look at what remains in its wake. I was left stunned and emotionally spent, and for this, I say job exceptionally well done. (available on an all-region DVD/Blu-ray in the UK)