Informer, The (1935): John Ford’s Oscar Winning Film

The Informer, based on a screenplay by Dudley Nichols from the novel by Liam O’Flaherty, is one of John Ford’s most highly acclaimed films, for which he won the Directing citation from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Oscar Award.

Our Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

This feature, made in 1935, shows the strong influence of German expressionism on its visual style, particularly the imagery of cinematographer Joseph August, who fills the screen with shadows and fogs in low-key lighting.

Set in 1922, the story concerns the Irish War of Independence, centering on a brutish Irishman, Gypo Nolan, played by Victor McLaglen in his Oscar-winning performance.

Gypo informs on his friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), a member of the Irish Republican Army, in order to collect the reward of £20 and sail to America with his girl Katie Madden (Margot Grahame).  At first, his reasoning is rather simple, “Frankie is about to die anyway.”

The film then traces Gypo’s moral journey, from his betrayal through his conscience-stricken emotional disintegration that eventually leads him to give himself away to the autjorities and be forgiven by Frankie’s mother.

Early on, as Gypo stares at Frankie in the Durby House, Ford dissolves to a poster announcing 20 Pounds reward, and then to the poster announcing “America—10 Pounds.” The two posters are interrelated, representing Gypo’s prospects for a decent life and better future.

A fantasy sequence follows, in which Gypo imagines himself married to Katie (Margot Grahame) and together they’re on their way to the new land. Using the dichotomized characterization of the Madonna-whore, Ford first shows Katie silhouetted in low-key lighting, wearing a shawl over her head like a Madonna figure, before depicting her as a poor prostitute approached by strangers.

Ford and Nichols changed the intent and tone of Liam O’Flaherty’s book, which is much harsher and is populated by characters that are poor, miserable, and brutish. The film’s characters are more attractive and sympathetic. Thus, in the book, Dan Gallagher (Preston Foster) is a cold, scheming, ugly man, and Mary (Heather Angel), who’s Frankie’s sister, is neurotically attracted to him. But in the movie, Gallagher is just a tough pipe-smoking leader of the IRA dedicated to the cause and to his love of Mary.

As the scholar J.A. Place pointed out, Ford depicts horrible lives and stark, dehumanized environment, in which political activism is impossible. In the movie, dignity under hardship, and purity through suffering become meaningless. He imbues the film with a tragic-romantic vision, which is accentuated by the expressionistic visual style.

The changes from print to screen make the tale more accessible and palatable to American audiences of the Depression era. Ultimately, the visuals are more striking than the text or dialogue. It’s noteworthy, that the first reel and some of the film’s most effective sequences are almost silent.

Living in the poorest, toughest section of Dublin, he can’t get work and can’t even be a revolutionary because he lacks discipline. Gypo resembles other Ford’s heroes, innocent, not too bright men who are driven to a life of moral failure through forces that are beyond their control. His childlike ignorance makes him asks Gallagher: “Can’t someone tell me why I did it

Fatalism is a motif that runs throughout the story, beginning with the poster that blows against Gypo’s legs and brings Frankie to him, and the blind man who sees his action, when he has just dreamed of saving Katie from her degradation. The striking visuals and powerful emotions compensate for a film that lacks the complexity and ambiguity of other Ford’s films.

Cast

Gypo Nolan (Victor Mclaglen)
Mary McPhillip (Heather Angel)
Dan Gallagher (Preston Foster)
Katie Madden (Margot Grahame)
Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford)
Mrs. McPhillip (Una O’Connor)
Terry (J.M. Kerrigan)
Bartley Mulholland (Joe Sawyer)
Tommy Conner (Neil Fitzgerlad)
Pat Mulligan (Donald Meek)

Oscar Nominations: 6

Picture, produced by Cliff Reid
Director: John Ford
Actor: Victor McLaglen
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols
Film Editing: George Hively
Score: Max Steiner

Oscar Awards: 4

Director
Actor
Screenplay
Score

Oscar Context

“The Informer” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with 11 other films, the largest ever in this category: “Alice Adams,” “Broadway Melody of 1936,” “Captain Blood,” “David Copperfield,” “The Informer,” “Les Miserables,” “Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Naughty Marietta,” “Ruggles of Red Gap,” and “Top Hat.” “Mutiny on the Bounty” won the Best Picture.

John Ford is the only director in American film history who has won four Oscars, the other three were for “The Grapes of Wrath,” How Green Was My Valley,” and “The Quiet Man.”