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Moviegoers were less enthusiastic-the film's domestic gross was only a little higher than its $215,000 budget - and while Ford himself was strongly committed to the project, he wasn't very keen on how it turned out, telling critic Lindsay Anderson in 1950 that it came "a long way down the list" of his personal favorites. "It lacks humor - which is my forte," he later told Peter Bogdanovich.
Ford was right about the film's humorless mood, but the story-based on a novel by Liam O'Flaherty, an Irish author with Marxist politics--doesn't exactly cry out for lighthearted treatment. Set in Dublin in 1922, it centers on Gypo Nolan, a lunkheaded Irishman who's somehow gotten involved with the Sinn Fein rebellion against British rule. Tossed out of the rebel group and addled by romantic dreams of escaping to America with his prostitute girlfriend, he walks into a police station and informs on a close friend (Wallace Ford) to collect the reward. The friend then dies in a shootout with the cops. Stabs of conscience (what have I done?) and pangs of paranoia (will the IRA find out?) attack Gypo immediately, pushing him into a nonstop psychological slide. The movie's style mirrors his deteriorating state, wrapping scene after scene in murky fog and offering glimpses of the delirious visions that invade Gypo's suffering, whiskey-dazed mind. The plot culminates in a late-night IRA council meeting called to determine The Informer's identity and eliminate him so he can't cause additional damage. Among those present are Gypo, the sister (Heather Angel) of the rebel he squealed on, and a meek tailor (played by Donald Meek, fittingly enough) whom Gypo has falsely accused of being the squealer.
It's easy to imagine The Informer as a hard-hitting suspense drama, but Ford takes it in a different direction, leaving little doubt that Gypo's disloyal deed will catch up with him and bring him down. As early as the opening credits we see his silhouetted figure with arms outstretched as if he were being crucified, and the fogbound images shot by cinematographer Joseph H. August, reflecting Ford's fascination with German Expressionist film, are consistently ominous. Ford favors psychological anxiety over narrative tension at every opportunity, so that despite its heavy dose of Christian symbolism - the finale takes place under a looming crucifix in a cathedral, underlining themes of forgiveness and redemption-the film's effect is closer to Greek tragedy, where the outcome is never in question and interest lies less in what will happen than in how the predetermined end will come about. Gypo is a disconcertingly simple and often unsympathetic character as he stumbles through the dark Dublin night from one drunken rendezvous to another, randomly yowling his own name into the shadows ("Gypooooo!") and squandering his blood money along the way. But his moral dilemma is as vivid as it is authentic, and his story is grimly effective if you take it on its own stylized terms.
According to Hollywood legend, Ford made sure Gypo would show the right degree of extreme confusion in the climactic IRA scene by luring McLaglen into a heavy-drinking bout the night before it was shot. In his book John Ford: The Man and His Films, critic Tag Gallagher goes further, reporting that Ford kept McLaglen off balance throughout the production by making fun of him, changing his lines, slipping him drinks, and shooting "rehearsal" takes without telling him the camera was running. Sneaky? Sure. But the result was an Oscar® for each of them. And miffed as he may have been at the time, McLaglen did several more Ford films in later years.
It's harder to explain the Oscar® for Steiner, since his score is one of the movie's weak elements, stressing dramatic moments far too strongly and imitatively "mickey-mousing" the action more than once. Steiner was one of the great movie composers, but he badly underperforms here. By contrast, Nichols's screenplay is usually tight and terse, supporting Ford's evident desire to approach the image-driven storytelling of Expressionist silent films. On the downside, the film's few female characters (the betrayed man's sister and mother, Gypo's girlfriend and a high-class hooker he gives money to) and are so underwritten that they serve little purpose except as sentimental foils for the men who drive the narrative.
The Informer was made at RKO after several other studios passed on it, worrying it wouldn't be commercial enough. They had a point, as the movie's relatively low earnings proved. But its "art movie" aura, resulting from the atmospheric visuals Ford used to compensate for low-end production resources, helped it make up in prestige what it lacked in box-office clout. Despite its misty tone, the film looks appealingly crisp on Warner Bros.' new DVD edition. The only extras are a theatrical trailer and a ten-minute documentary, aptly called "Out of the Fog," in which Bogdanovich and others share their views on the film's story, style, and background. It's unlikely that The Informer would win multiple Oscars® today, but as a slice of Depression-era film history - and as one of a great director's most respected works, at least when first released - it's worth a good look by modern moviegoers.
For more information about The Informer, visit Warner Video. To order The Informer which is only available as part of the John Ford Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by David Sterritt