Tag Archives: The Informer

Noirvember II #3 – Scarlet Street (1945)

scarlet-street-movie-poster-1945-1020413479Scarlet Street (1945)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Dudley Nichols (based on La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardiere (novel) and Andre Mouezy-Eon (play))
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, Jess Barker

“Jeepers, I love you Johnny” – These five seemingly innocuous words have haunted me since my first viewing of Fritz Lang’s brilliant film noir Scarlet Street.  Coming just two years after the previously reviewed Hangmen Also Die!, Lang shows the world exactly why he is regarded as such an innovator of the genre.  Starring the prolific Edward G. Robinson as a down-on-his-luck sad sack who gets wrapped up in an apparent love triangle, Scarlet Street offers up the trademark psychological twists and turns of the film noir genre, while also serving as an intricate and complex character study.  Today, Lang’s film is hailed as one of the best films the genre has to offer, but it didn’t fare nearly as well during its initial release.  Despite being a monetary success at the box office by more than doubling its budget, some critics felt that it was cliched and unethical – definitely not the first time in the history of the medium that the consensus would vary so wildly all these years later.

Scarlet Street follows a hapless middle-aged store clerk and aspiring artist named Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) as he very literally stumbles into an unrequited romance with a younger woman named Kitty (Joan Bennett).  Cross, unsatisfied with his loveless home life, is immediately smitten with the young Kitty, who sees an opportunity to easily swindle the gullible Chris.  Together with her boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea), the two plot to extort money from Chris, whom they foolishly believe to be a famous and well-regarded painter.  Johnny, being the bold and mischievous man he is, steals paintings from our sad sack protagonist in order to sell them to an art dealer.  Through a series of misunderstandings, Kitty is given artistic credit for the paintings after art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker) expresses interest in them.  This triggers an unforgettable and unpredictable chain of events that will forever change the lives of Chris, Kitty, Johnny, and all those around them. In typical film noir fashion, nobody gets off easy.

Fritz Lang is a director I’ve been interested in for many years now.  I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t seen nearly enough of his films, but the ones I have seen have largely been excellent.  In my opinion, Scarlet Street stands out among classics like Metropolis and M as one of his very best.  It’s an incredibly bleak, obsessive, soul-crushing affair, but that’s where most of its charm comes from. While the story may seem contrived to some viewers, it’s one of the more focused and organic film noir’s I’ve seen.  The screenplay by Academy Award winning writer Dudley Nichols (The Informer, The Long Voyage Home, The Bells of St. Mary’s) is razor sharp, pitch black in tone, and concise.  Nichols’ focused narrative, paired with Lang’s penchant for moody, dimly lit imagery and fluid camerawork, makes for one of the most satisfying film noir experiences in the history of the genre.  Edward G. Robinson steals the show as Christopher Cross – perfectly capturing the spirit of the truly sad and pathetic character. Married to a woman who still pines for her ex-husband, stuck in an unsatisfying career, and hopelessly lusting after a beautiful young woman, it’s at times difficult to sympathize with Robinson’s character.  He very rarely sticks up for himself, letting all those around him treat him like a human doormat or a sad punchline.  He’s not particularly good at anything he does, he’s not especially charming or handsome, and yet there’s something so refreshing about the character. Edward G. Robinson’s Chris is one of the most complex, layered, and ultimately tragic characters I’ve seen in the genre yet.  It’s a shame that Scarlet Street initially opened to such a lukewarm reaction, because otherwise I would have considered it a shoe-in for a host of prestigious Academy Award nominations.
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What I Liked:

  • Edward G. Robinson delivers one of the most complex and powerful performances I’ve ever seen.
  • Joan Bennett’s Kitty is another standout performance, mostly in how she successfully manages to convince both Chris and the audience that her intentions aren’t cruel.  She’s the perfect femme fatale.
  • The repetition of specific sounds and phrases (the record player skipping, “Jeepers, I love you Johnny”) throughout the run-time creates a haunting and at times hallucinatory atmosphere.
  • The film’s ending is perfectly twisted and tragic – ensuring that no single character escaped the situation unscathed.
  • Dudley Nichols’ narrative felt very unique and important, despite being so small in scope.
  • Rosalind Ivan’s turn as Adele Cross, Chris’ unhappy and spiteful wife, was perfectly grating and easy to hate.

What I Didn’t:

  • The emergence of a subplot involving Adele Cross’ deceased ex-husband feels too convenient in the context of the film.  I don’t have a problem with the actual subplot – it’s just introduced far too late into the film.
  • Dan Duryea’s performance as Johnny is slightly too ham-fisted to be a believable mastermind of the plot.  He comes off as brutish and dopey – never clever enough to be perceived as an actual threat.

While perhaps not as important as some of his earliest masterworks, Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street is a brooding, haunting, hopelessly bleak near-masterpiece.  It features a remarkable performance by one of Hollywood’s greatest unsung stars, an excellent supporting cast, a sharp script by veteran writer Dudley Nichols, and excellent film noir imagery by one of the genre’s innovators.  It may be flawed, but it’s an unforgettable and thrilling experience that I can’t wait to revisit over and over and over again.  Much like Christopher Cross, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to purge the phrase “Jeepers, I love you Johnny” from my mind – but unlike him, I’m certainly not complaining.  Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street gets my highest recommendation.

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John Ford Feature #8 – The Quiet Man (1952)

Poster_-_Quiet_Man,_The_01The Quiet Man (1952)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on The Quiet Man by Maurice Walsh)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond

As you may have read in my brief summary post about why I chose to cover the films of John Ford for an entire month, the man still holds the record for most Academy Awards won for Best Director.  He won the award The Informer in 1935, The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, How Green Was My Valley in 1941, and finally for 1952’s romantic drama The Quiet Man.  The John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara starring film would be released to tremendous critical acclaim and box office success, and is still widely recognized as one of Ford’s greatest films.  It’s perhaps most notable for being such a departure compared to the violent westerns that filled most of his career, and might just shock you by how light and playful it initially comes off.  Instead of focusing on common Ford settings like the desolate western plains or the Pacific, the film takes place entirely in a small Irish community and features a cast full of Irish descendants.  It brings with it John Ford’s subtle sense of humour (perhaps more overt here), impeccable eye for photography, and a cast full of lovable and recognizable faces.  The Quiet Man once against featured the incredible cinematography of the great Winton Hoch, who would once again bring home the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1952.  On top of bringing home awards for Directing and Cinematography, Ford’s drama was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The inspiration for the film – much like those in the cavalry trilogy – once again came from a story in The Saturday Evening Post, this time written by Maurice Walsh.  On top of starring the team of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, The Quiet Man also features John Ford company regulars Victor McLaglen (The Informer), Barry Fitzgerald (The Long Voyage Home), Ward Bond (They Were Expendable), and Francis Ford (The Informer).  Unfortunately for Ford, the film would prove to be his final movie to be nominated for Academy Awards, despite his career continuing on for nearly fifteen years.

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Sean Thornton (John Wayne) is an Irish-American former boxer who has just moved back to his native land in order to reclaim his family’s farm in this tiny community of Inisfree.  Upon his arrival he is met with warm greetings from a townful of odd and interesting characters.  He meets and very quickly falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), who has a reputation around town as a fiery young independent woman.  Mary Kate also happens to be the unfortunate sister of the loudmouth bully Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who had his sights set on Thornton’s family farm.  After the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) sells the farm to Thornton, an angered and jealous Will Danaher refuses to allow him to marry his younger sister.  After some trickery by the townspeople, Will is led to believe that the Widow Tillane wants to marry Will, but only on the grounds that Mary Kate be out of the house.  After a whirlwind romance, Sean and Mary Kate are quickly married and Will finds out the truth about the Widow.  Enraged, he refuses to allow Mary Kate to take her dowry, which has been passed on to her by her late mother.  Sean, being American and not understanding Irish traditions, refuses to speak with Will on the matter and is branded a coward by his new wife.  The marriage quickly falls apart, and the locals conspire to have Will return Mary Kate’s rightful inheritance to her.  With a coward husband and no dowry, Mary Kate boards a train to leave for greener pastures, but is quite literally dragged away by her husband.  Will the foreign Thornton confront the traditional Will Danaher and get his wife what rightfully belongs to her, or will he stand by and watch his marriage crumble before it could ever even gain steam?  Find out in John Ford’s Academy Award-winning The Quiet Man.

The Quiet Man was a very difficult film for me to review coming off the heels of the thrilling cavalry trilogy that preceded it.  Luckily, what I found was incredibly charming (if old-fashioned), funny, and beautiful film with a great deal to love about it.  Maureen O’Hara once again steals the show, this time as the incredibly strong and independent Mary Kate Danaher, who is an incredibly progressive character for the era the film was made in.  John Wayne’s performance as Sean Thornton is equally impressive, showing off more of his newly recognized acting abilities and proving that he has more range than just playing cranky, cynical men of the old west.  Thornton isn’t exactly a romantic or strong-willed character, but he’s always interesting to watch on screen because the character is quite a mystery for most of The Quiet Man’s runtime.  The former boxer turned Irish immigrant character works well for Wayne, and his brooding, yet charismatic screen presence never fails to compel.  The true standouts of the film are the once again incredible technicolour cinematography from Winton Hoch, coupled with some very restrained direction from John Ford.  His tried and true method of not distracting the audience with overly-complicated camera maneuvers works wonders, and instead the film focuses purely on storytelling and getting the best performances possible out of its cast.  Hoch’s bright and colorful cinematography is perfectly suited to the Irish countryside, and there’s something to marvel at in nearly every frame of the movie.  The film is also very well-written, especially comedically.  It opens with a hilarious example of slapstick humour that still works today, and continues by giving its entire cast of oddball characters their own unique personalities and eccentricities.  I can honestly say that I laughed out loud more than once during my two viewings of The Quiet Man, something that has rarely happened during my Ford marathon.  It’s clear throughout that John Ford is proud of his heritage and very passionate about Ireland, and that passion and interest in the setting and traditions add a great deal of genuine atmosphere to the film.  Unfortunately, there are a few moments that just didn’t work for me throughout.  One scene in particular involves Wayne’s Thornton giving off some awfully rape-y and abusive vibes towards O’Hara’s Mary Kate.  Not only does Sean Thornton corner his new wife in her dark room, but he throws her onto her bed hard enough to break it, staring a hole through her the entire time.  Maybe I’m crazy, but the entire sequence added nothing to the supposed romance between the two leads, and instead felt out of place and old-fashioned in the worst way possible.  Luckily, these moments are few and far between and aren’t enough to derail what is largely a terrific and charming film.  

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The Quiet Man is a restrained deviation from John Ford’s usual work, and is surprising in how successful it is.  The comedy, terrific lead performances, beautiful Irish setting, and subtle direction make for a truly remarkable and memorable film, and one that has absolutely earned its reputation as being one of Ford’s best.  The Quiet Man was a tremendous surprise, and a film I can easily say comes highly recommended.

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John Ford Feature #1 – The Informer (1935)

The_Informer_posterThe 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.

Informer

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.

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Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) and Barty Mulholland (Joe Sawyer) in 1935’s Best Picture nominee, The Informer.

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.

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December Theme – John Ford (An Introduction)

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If you aren’t somebody who is interested in film history and the significant players in its development, you may be wondering who exactly John Ford is, and what makes him so worthy of an entire month-long feature.  You may often hear him described as being a difficult, if unpretentious, and old-fashioned director.  Ford was an incredibly intense and idiosyncratic man who even managed to occasionally alienate even those closest to him.  John Ford smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish when he was permitted to, but was an extremely humble and sensitive man.  John Ford was and remains to this very day a mystery to many people, but the one thing that critics and historians alike are sure of it’s that he’s a legendary figure in the business, and one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.  

Ford most famously made his name known through the direction of dozens of western and dramatic films, spanning from the early silent era to the mid-1960’s.  The great director is the only filmmaker in history to win four Academy Awards for Best Director (The Informer in 1935, The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, How Green Was My Valley in 1941, and The Quiet Man in 1952).  His frequent collaborators included famous western stars John Wayne and both Harry Carey Sr. and Harry Carey Jr., Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Maureen O’Hara.

The films of John Ford often had themes that romanticized the old west, and were incredibly patriotic and passionate about America.  As far as direction, he greatly preferred the use of long, static shots as opposed to complex camera movements, which he felt were too laborious and time consuming.  Ford was never afraid to sacrifice parts of his work for the greater good, and was known to make last-minute changes to many of his scripts, proving he was never “married” to any one idea.  He preferred his actors known the ins and outs of their characters, and was not particularly fond of rehearsals.  Though Ford favoured a more deliberate pacing and classic approach to direction, his films are far from boring or standard in any way.  The man absolutely knew his way around a camera, and had both the critical praise and financial success to prove it.

John Ford’s most famous films include the incredible and highly influential Stagecoach, the Oscar-winning adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the beautiful and controversial The Searchers, and my personal favorite film of his, the “film that beat Citizen Kane” How Green Was My Valley.  His influence has been felt for years, and his films continue to amaze and inspire generations.  Some of the directors who admired the man and were influenced by his films and style include my favorite director Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, and Orson Welles.

The schedule for my John Ford retrospective month looks as follows:

#1 – The Informer (1935) – December 1

#2 – The Long Voyage Home (1940) – December 4

#3 – They Were Expendable (1945) – December 7

#4 – My Darling Clementine (1946) – December 10

#5 – Fort Apache (1948) – December 13

#6 – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) – December 16

#7 – Rio Grande (1950) – December 19

#8 – The Quiet Man (1952) – December 22

#9 – The Searchers (1956) – December 25

#10 – The Wings of Eagles (1957) – December 28

*The schedule is subject to change, with Christmas break looming.  If I have to eliminate any films from the marathon, I’ll be sure to post about it.  

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