The Informer (1935)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Dudley Nichols (based on The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty)
Starring: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame, Wallace Ford
As the old adage goes, “snitches get stitches” – this is exactly what John Ford’s early acclaimed drama tries to convey to the audience. The Informer was a massive hit upon its release in America, grossing more than double its meager budget, as well as widespread critical acclaim. Ford’s film was nominated for six Academy Awards that year, bringing home four of them despite going head-to-head with that years Best Picture winner Mutiny on the Bounty. John Ford brought home his first Oscar for Best Director, the film’s star and regular John Ford film actor Victor McLaglen won Best Actor, Dudley Nichols won Best Adapted Screenplay (which he then refused), and the film would also win Best Score. 1935 was a tremendous year for films, with about half of the twelve films nominated for Best Picture still being recognized as truly great or memorable works (Mutiny on the Bounty, Alice Adams, Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, and Ruggles of Red Gap). And yet even among that kind of company, Ford’s The Informer still manages to stand out from the crowd as one of the most fondly remembered films of the director’s early talkie career. Though the famous Western director had made a name for himself with his many silent films starring Harry Carey, The Informer is arguably the point where John Ford became noticed as one of the great directors of the time to look out for. His film Arrowsmith had also been nominated for Best Picture in 1931, but that film hasn’t endured the test of time the same way this has.
The Informer follows ex-IRA (Irish Republic Army) foot-soldier Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) shortly after the young man has been kicked out for trying to spare the life of a Black and Tan soldier. The film takes place in the early 1920’s, when the outlaw IRA were battling the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence. Our protagonist Gypo has his sights set on America, but first needs to get the money together to allow him passage into the blossoming country. During a late night walk, Gypo finds that his good friend and former comrade Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) is a wanted man, and the bounty on his head would allow for Gypo’s voyage to America. He decides to meet with McPhillip, who has been living the life of a fugitive, and has been on the run for six months. Gypo finds out that McPhillip is one his way back to his mother (Una O’Connor) and sister (Heather Angel), making the trip by night to avoid the authorities. Gypo very quickly makes the decision to become an informer, and alerts the Black and Tans to the presence of McPhillip. The soldiers surround McPhillip’s family home, and the young fugitive is killed in a vicious gunfight, taking out several Black and Tans on his way out. Gypo is given the bounty, but now bears the guilt of the death of his colleague weighing on his shoulders. The new informer decides to drown his sorrows at a local pub, and runs into his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame). Gypo lies to Katie and tells her that he mugged an American sailor and took the money from him, rather than betraying a former comrade and directly leading to his untimely death. A now drunk and generous Gypo eventually runs into ex-IRA comrades, who are holding an inquest into the death of Frakie McPhillip. They know that Gypo was the last man to speak with McPhillip, but can they prove that our protagonist snitched on him to enemy soldiers? To find out, you’ll have to watch John Ford’s terrific The Informer and see for yourself.
If The Informer is any indication of the caliber of film I’m going to enjoy over the next month, then I can safely say I’ve chosen well. The film has a very deliberate pacing, and very much feels like an early suspense film, but never slows down for too long. The tension at the beginning of the film with Gypo roaming the darkened streets of Ireland is incredible, and the moment he sees the wanted poster for somebody who is clearly his friend is unlike any I’ve seen from the period. Victor McLaglen’s performance as the slow-witted Gypo Nolan is easily the standout in the film, and his constantly conflicted character is not an easy one to get behind because of his actions. Gypo’s intentions are always good, but the way he goes about them are so morally ambiguous that you’re left not quite sure who to root for, which is something I always appreciate in a film. It’s no wonder McLaglen won the Oscar for Best Actor that year, and I absolutely can’t wait to see him in a few more upcoming Ford films. The directing technique in the film isn’t quite up to par with what we would come to see in works like Stagecoach (1939), but are still fairly impressive for an early sound film such as this. Though the “talkie” had been around since the late 1920’s, you can still absolutely tell that Ford was working in an environment he wasn’t 100% comfortable with. I think that the film would have worked just as well as a silent picture, and even feels like one in moments without music or dialogue. As I was watching this film, it struck me that I’m going to be able to see this incredible director grow in talent and esteem, and I could not have picked a better film to begin with. The Informer, though clumsy in small moments, is a terrific, suspenseful, and incredibly well-acted start to a prolific and critically acclaimed career.
If you’ve never had the privilege of seeing a John Ford film, I can probably think of better places for new viewers to start. The Informer is a great film by a great director, but it’s definitely not the absolute best place for one to begin, because it only shows a small amount of what Ford was capable of. The film is held together by an incredible performance by Victor McLaglen, who very deservedly beat out two of America’s best actors (Charles Laughton and Clark Gable) for Best Actor that year. The Informer is sure to challenge viewers with its moral ambiguity, and get audiences very excited for what’s to come in Ford’s storied film-making career. The Informer is highly recommended.