[With thanks to Nick, Nat and Mike, among others, for inspiring me to pull my finger out and get reviewing again on this blog.]
I’m not good on early John Ford. Until this point I’d seen literally nothing pre-Stagecoach (1939), and from there it’s an awfully big gap until My Darling Clementine (1946), even bigger if you consider that he was bashing out two or even three films a year throughout that period. I’m also not entirely convinced I’ve ever seen a movie with Victor McLaglen in it, from which you can probably deduce that I’m not all that hot on mid-to-late John Ford either. To begin rectifying this thoroughly naughty situation, I promise I’ve just put The Grapes of Wrath on my lovefilm queue, and just settled in to watch Ford’s Dublin guilt-trip drama The Informer, inspired by the topic of 1935 Oscar-winners memorably raised by some blog buddies.
The Informer won both Ford and McLaglen statuettes, beating the stars and director of Mutiny on the Bounty, but I’m afraid it’s exactly the kind of picture that reminds me why I rarely curl up on the sofa for an afternoon with John Ford. True, the film starts quite promisingly and remains visually arresting almost throughout, with the lamplight on Dublin’s streets serving as an immediate, if perhaps over-stark, cue for its themes of guilt and exposure. Ford and his cinematographer, the oddly unnominated Joseph H August, tell the story through crisp, robust set-ups which rarely tire the eye, even if there’s an excess of clunky “suspicious” close-ups of the supporting cast when McLaglen’s Gypo is spilling his ill-gotten gains all over the shop. In the opening reel, I was impressed by the stealthy work of this bruiser-ish leading man, a dead ringer for Anthony Quinn with his burly, hunched physique, as he persuades himself to betray drinking buddy Frankie (a rather annoying Wallace Ford) and allows remorse to start gnawing away before the information has even left his lips.
Then he starts drinking, and the film gets plastered. You could mark the disintegration of its focus, and the draining of any subtlety in McLaglen’s performance, on the whisky bottle from which his first shot is poured. Theoretically I admire Ford’s decision to break ranks with his hectoring story arc here -- allowing the guilty party to forget himself, making him act less guilty the closer he gets to being rumbled, does prove an unexpected wrinkle in his otherwise straight-ahead path to perdition. But using a lot of boozy Irish revelry to keep the man occupied is a script decision that kills the drama.
The more I watched The Informer, the more I became convinced it would have worked altogether better as a silent film, since the mainly dismal dialogue and crazy bevy of accents do its thunderous, if thin, plot few favours. (In fact, the same novel was adapted into a little-seen version in 1929, which, curiously, is supposed to have turned into a talkie half-way through.) McLaglen recovers himself with one good, sweaty moment when he spots an enemy’s pistol poking towards him, but otherwise his boozy braggart routine has the effect of blurring the film’s ostensible subject past the point where it's actually being dealt with; and even Max Steiner’s Oscar-winning score, with its loping dotted rhythms, seems to be abetting the clumsiness of this section as Gypo stumbles from one messily incriminating situation to the next.
The problems mount late in the day with the pitying and vapid function of all three female characters, who are like saintly ciphers from a below-par Graham Greene adaptation, but by this point, with McLaglen well into a predictably strenuous James-Mason-in-Odd Man Out fugitive routine, my attention was admittedly straying somewhat. Five minutes after it started, when The Informer was still boding well, I had said to myself, “I bet this ends in that church over McLaglen's shoulder”. And you know what? I wish I’d been wrong. C+