blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Informer (1935, John Ford)

Smack-dab in the middle of The Informer is a romance between IRA commander Preston Foster and his gal, Heather Angel, sister to an IRA man (Wallace Ford). Foster and Angel steal moments together on one fateful night, tragic circumstances giving them unexpected time with one another, but those same circumstances sort of foreshadowing their very sad future together.

The Informer is Victor McLaglen’s movie. The whole thing is about his performance. Everything is about supporting his performance, even this subplot because it’s going to get into the ground situation of the supporting cast—see, McLaglen is the titular Informer and Ford is his victim.

The film opens with a title card setting the time and place—a particular night in Dublin in 1922. The entire film takes place over twelve to fourteen hours, at night, with fog covering the city. The fog’s so dense, it encourages Ford out of hiding in the hills so he can visit with sister Angel and mom Una O'Connor. The fog’s so cold, it sends McLaglen’s girl (Margot Grahame) out onto the street looking to make some money for food and rent. When McLaglen interrupts Grahame’s potential customer’s approach, they get into a fight about money. The film’s already established Ford’s wanted by the Black and Tans (the cops, working for the British against the IRA) and there’s a reward too. Just enough to cover passage to America for McLaglen and Grahame.

Once he gets to town, the first person Ford looks up is McLaglen—they’re besties, Ford the brains of the operation, McLaglen the brawn; all McLaglen’s recent troubles started after Ford had to lamb it. After a brief expository catch-up to lay out McLaglen’s ground situation, Ford’s off to visit his family. It’s okay, McLaglen tells him, the cops aren’t surveilling anymore.

We then get to watch McLaglen crack with desperation—not greed—and inform on Ford.

Until this point in the film—now, hopefully the Fords won’t get confusing—director Ford has been keeping a tight focus on McLaglen’s performance in close-up. High contrast black and white photography from Joseph H. August, every line and thought visible on McLaglen’s face. The first act of The Informer is mostly dialogue-free, relying on McLaglen and the exceptional diegetic sound use.

Until McLaglen informs, the cast is him, Ford, and Grahame. There are background players but as they’re the only three who matter, which separates it a little from the second and third acts; after McLaglen goes to the cops—and after the cops raid Ford and family’s home—the cast gets very big, very fast.

Foster has head sidekick Joe Sawyer bring McLaglen in for a meeting—McLaglen’s been booted from the IRA, which is why he’s broke and starving—because Foster assumes McLaglen will know who informed on his best pal. McLaglen’s already had about half a bottle of whiskey and he finishes another while bullshitting Foster and Sawyer. Foster buys it, Sawyer doesn’t; they’re meeting at 1:30 a.m. to figure it out.

McLaglen’s going to spend that time getting drunker and drunker, picking up a repulsive little sidekick in J.M. Kerrigan, who thinks McLaglen’s got money but doesn’t realize he’s got money. During their drinking and carousing, much of McLaglen’s early sympathy gets burned off. He’s not too bright—hence needing Ford’s brains and Kerrigan’s ability to sway him—plus he’s exceptionally drunk. Sawyer’s trailing him, counting the money he spends, but it’s more impressive how much whiskey McLaglen consumes.

He’s 6’3”, towering over everyone else in the film, and the drunker he gets, the more uncontrollable he gets. He’s a floundering bull, lashing out all around.

The film culminates in a trial, where McLaglen confronts the man he’s accused in his place—Donald Meek in an incredible performance; his accent is Irish-y McIrish-y but still deep and earnest—as everyone starts to realize maybe McLaglen’s got more going on than just being dim and drunk. The conclusion is very, very good and very, very Catholic. Director Ford goes all out.

In addition to McLaglen, fantastic performances from Ford, O’Connor, Sawyer, Meek, and Kerrigan. Kerrigan’s so loathsome you don’t want to give him any credit but he’s also really good at it. Angel and Grahame are fine plus; when they have their big scene together, they’re both better than when playing off the boys (sort of amusingly—it’s 1935 after all—every syllable seems to fail Bechdel, yet the whole film hinges on it). Foster’s… maybe the only part to recast. He’s fine too, he’s just a little too stoic. While Foster gets to show his humanity in the romance with Angel, Sawyer gets to show it in his bloodthirstiness, which is far more striking.

The film’s impeccably directed by Ford. Wonderful use of sound, composition, music—Max Steiner—August’s photography, George Hively’s editing, the sets—it’s all outstanding. And all of it is to showcase McLaglen’s exceptional turn as a tragic, dumb lug. In the end, the only one who can almost compare is O’Connor, but she only has to be exceptional for three minutes, McLaglen’s onscreen most of the ninety minute runtime.

The Informer’s great.

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