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Moody, expressionistic, symbolic of paranoia, betrayal, guilt--these are the elements that mark director John Ford's The Informer (1935), his paean to an Ireland--the country of his parents' birth-torn asunder by political and martial war with Britain.
In 1922, in the strife-torn streets of Dublin, Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen), a poor, lumbering goliath, sees a wanted poster of his best friend, rebel Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) that promises a hefty reward for information leading to Frankie's arrest. Broke, hungry, and longing for an escape to America, Gypo seeks out the British army and betrays his friend and comrade. After Frankie is killed in front of his mother and sister, Gypo collects his reward money and begins a long journey into a night filled with guilt, remorse, and ultimately, some kind of redemption, all with an Irish flavor. [Martin Scorsese references The Informer in his own statement on Irish guilt and betrayal in The Departed (2006).]
The film is based on Liam O'Flaherty's novel, the rights of which were purchased by RKO for $2,500. Ford had wanted to film O'Flaherty's novel as early as 1930, but RKO thought the subject matter entirely unappealing. The fact the novel had already been adapted as an unsuccessful British film in 1929 did not help Ford in convincing RKO otherwise. The studio brass simply thought the tale was too dark, too grim, too common. But the studio hesitantly agreed, after Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols wrote the first and, according to Nichols, only draft of the script, in six days during a cruise on Ford's sailboat, the Araner.
+ Nichols, one of Ford's most important collaborators, found the pre-production process of The Informer to be wholly unique. As Ford scholar Lindsay Anderson recounts, Nichols said, "I had of course been mulling the story for a long time, and was full of it, had been gathering ideas as to how to do it. I had a few talks with Ford beforehand, but nothing specific was discussed. Then we had one fruitful session together with Max Steiner, who was to write the music; Van (Nest) Polglase, who was to do the sets; Joe August, the cameraman; and a couple of technicians. This, to my mind, is the proper way to approach a film production-and it is, alas, the only time in 25 years I have known it to be done: a group discussion before a line of the script is written."
Still, many higher-ups in RKO regarded The Informer as "dramatically pointless and commercial suicide." Fortunately for Ford, he had an ace in the hole within RKO's management-associate producer Cliff Reid. The tenacious Reid championed Ford and more importantly, Ford's ambitions. When RKO would question whether or not the story suffered from dramatic anemia, Reid would argue, "Never mind the story: just keep concentrating on we got the best damn director in Hollywood working for us. F-O-R-D. Ford."
RKO wanted Richard Dix in the role of Gypo Nolan, the title role informer. Ford adamantly resisted. He had Victor McLaglen, his star from The Lost Patrol (1934), in mind for the role all along. According to film scholar John Baxter, McLaglen was "the personification of noisy, violent, drunken but lovable Ireland, and based, Ford acknowledges, on his own father." McLaglen wasn't even Irish (the only authentic Irishman in the cast was J.M. Kerrigan, playing Terry, the hanger-on who helps Gypo squander his blood money). He was English. He was a boy soldier in the Boer War and a prizefighter (who once went six rounds with Jack Johnson) before he became an actor. McLaglen made a total of twelve films for Ford, including The Quiet Man (1952), another film for which Ford won the Oscar® for Best Director. The total number would be thirteen if one counted What Price Glory (1926), a picture that McLaglen starred in, with a few scenes directed by Ford. But McLaglen breaks the heart with his performance as the blustery, bruising simpleton, who can not fully comprehend the consequences of his actions.
For his performance, McLaglen was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor. It was later suggested that Ford "tricked" McLaglen into getting drunk for several key scenes, specifically the scene where Gypo is being interrogated. The story goes that Ford told McLaglen to should tie one on after shooting wrapped one day, since he wasn't needed for the next day's shooting. So when the morning came, McLaglen was surprised to be ordered to the set, looking haggard and hung-over. It was in this state, supposedly, that McLaglen performed the climactic interrogation scene. However, McLaglen's son, Andrew, strenuously denied that his father would perform any scene while inebriated. And Ford himself, years later, admitted that "there is an axiom in the picture business that nobody under the influence of alcohol can play a drunk. And I believe that...You can't play a drunk while you're under the influence. Victor had to run too many gamuts of emotion, bravado, nervousness, fear sometimes all in one scene, and go back to bravado again and resume the whole thing. He had too much to do to take a drink."
To keep RKO happy, The Informer was kept on a tight budget and a tighter schedule: about $243,000 and just under 20 days. The relatively cheap budget and lightning fast pace give Ford an interesting challenge, one that would be taken up by independent filmmakers in the future: how to make a compelling motion picture with very little money and time. What Ford did make was something RKO never intended: a highly personal art picture, and he did it on time and on budget. The film became RKO's most prestigious production for years. When it was first released, The Informer was not a breakout hit. It took a little time, helped by rapturous reviews, for the film to become a financial success and, more importantly, justification that John Ford was at the top of his game and one of Hollywood's greatest filmmakers. In addition to McLaglen's Oscar®, The Informer also earned Ford his first of six Oscar®s, and Max Steiner won for Best Score. Dudley Nichols received the Oscar® for Best Screenplay, but Nichols refused it, out of loyalty for his fellow writers, who had left the Motion Picture Academy over union issues. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, but lost to The Mutiny on the Bounty (1935).
As Ford biographer Scott Eyman notes in his book Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, "The Informer gave (Ford) a critical reputation he would never entirely lose and bestowed upon him a leader's role within the industry." The experience also resulted in a long friendship with Liam O'Flaherty. The novelist dedicated Famine, his next novel, to Ford.
Producer: John Ford, Cliff Reid
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols, Liam O'Flaherty (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Film Editing: George Hively
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Victor McLaglen (Gypo Nolan), Heather Angel (Mary McPhillip), Preston Foster (Dan Gallagher), Margot Grahame (Katie Madden), Wallace Ford (Frankie McPhillip), Una O'Connor (Mrs. McPhillip).
BW-92m. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee