Monday, September 22, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Informer" (1935)

"Stagecoach." "The Searchers." "The Grapes of Wrath." "How Green Was My Valley." "Drums Along the Mohawk." "Young Mr. Lincoln." "My Darling Clementine." "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." "The Alamo." "How the West Was Won." "Mister Roberts." "The Quiet Man." "How the West Was Won." "Rio Grande."

John Ford arguably directed more iconic movies than any other Hollywood filmmaker. Unlike Hitchcock or Welles, who never earned the plaudits during their lifetimes commensurate with their body of work, Ford was well recognized by his peers: his four Academy Award wins for Best Director are a record that will likely never be surpassed.

(He won two more Oscars for his wartime documentaries.)

Interestingly, none of his Oscar wins were for Westerns, the genre with which he is most associated. His first, 1935's "The Informer," is probably the least known of the bunch. Based on the novel by Liam O'Flaherty, it was previously adapted into a 1929 British film before Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols had their own crack at it.

The result was a resounding success, winning four of its six Oscar nominations, losing the Best Picture race to the Clark Gable/Charles Laughton version of "Mutiny on the Bounty." Star Victor McLaglen won for Best Actor, and Max Steiner took the musical score prize. Nichols won the screenwriting Oscar, but became the first person to refuse to accept an Academy Award, citing the ongoing screenwriters guild strike.

The members of the Academy apparently didn't hold it against him -- Nichols would go on to be nominated three more times.

McLaglen is hardly your standard matinee idol. A huge man with a barrel chest, craggy face and balding pate, he mostly resembled an albino ape with an Irish brogue. (He often affected that accent for his roles to the point American audiences assumed he was an Irishman; actually he was a Brit born in Kent who was raised in South Africa.)

McLaglen gives an exuberant performance as Gypo Nolan, a dimwitted bruiser and petty thief who was court-martialed out of the Irish Republican Army for endangering the rebels with his inability to keep a secret or maintain a low profile. For some reason, the IRA guys here are all represented as young, good-looking fellows wearing long trench coats and narrow-brimmed fedora hats, almost like proto-Bogarts.

Gypo is not just dumb; he seems to have absolutely no control over his thoughts and urges. He essentially exists as pure id, his mouth and his fists immediately carrying out whatever thoughts spark inside his primordial swamp of a brain. He swaggers this way and that from moment to moment, becoming increasingly inebriated (a McLaglen specialty) as the story goes on.

The setup is that Gypo, penniless and friendless in 1922 Dublin, rats out an old friend on the lam (Wallace Ford) in exchange for a 20-pound reward from the police. Unfortunately, his friend is caught at his mother's house and refuses to be taken prisoner, and is gunned down by the police.

Gypo had hoped to use the money to buy steamship tickets to America for himself and his sweetie, Katie (Margot Grahame), who has recently been forced to selling herself on the street. His 20-pound fortune now becomes blood money, a deadly albatross hanging around his neck and spilling out of his pockets as he goes on one long bender of drinking and carousing.

Gypo at one point declares it "the greatest night of my life," and he means it, despite his genuine sorrow for his good friend's death as a result of his actions. Always forced to be the mindless muscle, the guy who stays in the back and takes orders, Gypo revels at becoming the "cock of the walk," buying everyone rounds and bursting into an exclusive party of hoity-toity types.

He takes to going around holding his meaty fists in the air like a triumphant prizefighter, shouting his own name with a crescendoing emphasis on the latter syllable: "Gih-POHH!!" It's his cry out to the world, a man celebrating a brief interlude as the center of attention, a bonfire that's bound to burn out.

Of course, his time on this mortal coil is ticking downward. The IRA quickly figures out that it was him who fingered their compatriot. And with every pound Gypo drops at various pubs, fish 'n' chips counters and saloons, it's not hard to put together who claimed the filthy lucre.

Preston Foster plays Dan Gallagher, the local IRA commandant, who knows he has to enforce the code against snitchers but it reluctant to condemn another man, especially one so pure of heart as Gypo. By "pure of heart" I don't imply that Gypo is angelic -- far from it. What I mean is that the towering lummox hasn't an ounce of deceit or falseness in him. Whatever he's doing or feeling at any given moment, he gives himself over to that completely.

At first pathetic and imbecilic -- watching him fritter away his money on whiskey and hangers-on, his dreams of finding a new life in America almost immediately dashed -- Gypo eventually becomes a tragic, sympathetic figure. At the end when he's finally caught he pleads, "I didn't know what I was doing!" And it really is true.

After he escapes (briefly) from the IRA and runs to Katie, he demands to know where the 20 pounds he gave her is -- forgetting, in his drunkenness and stupidity, that there were only a few crumpled notes left when he finally handed them over.

Heather Angel plays Mary McPhillip, the sister of Gypo's betrayed friend. She has a romance with Gallagher that feels ill-placed within the story of Gypo's descent and ultimate absolution. Una O'Connor plays her mother -- her name may not be recognizable, but her face is, a character actress often called upon to play ridiculous older women, such as the pinch-faced maid in "Witness for the Prosecution."

"The Informer" isn't a great movie, but it shows off John Ford's burgeoning talent for using landscapes to his benefit, weather sprawling vistas in Monument Valley or the mist, dank streets of London. And McLaglen is a revelation as the flawed, pitiable Gypo.

Known to be extremely hard on actors -- Ford was dubbed "the only man who could make John Wayne cry" -- he also knew how to get great performances out of them.

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