May 9, 1935, release date
Directed by John Ford
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols
Based on the novel The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty
Music by Max Steiner
Edited by George Hively
Cinematography by Joseph H. August
Heather Angel as Mary McPhillip
Preston Foster as Dan Gallagher
Margot Grahame as Katie Madden
Wallace Ford as Frankie McPhillip
Una O’Connor as Mrs. McPhillip
J. M. Kerrigan as Terry
Joe Sawyer as Bartley Mulholland (credited as Joseph Sauers)
Neil Fitzgerald as Tommy Connor
Donald Meek as Peter Mulligan
D’Arcy Corrigan as the blind man
Leo McCabe as Donahue
Steve Pendleton as Dennis Daly (credited as Gaylord Pendleton)
Francis Ford as “Judge” Flynn
May Boley as Madame Betty
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
I call The Informer an example of avant noir, what most people call proto-noir. It was released in 1935, five years before the beginning of the period most use to define film noir, which is approximately 1940 to 1960 or so. The Informer is one of those films that helps explain why a precise definition of film noir is so hard to pin down: It fits easily into the category of film noir, regardless of its release date.
So many film noir characteristics are included in The Informer: angst, torment, alienation, loneliness (in fact these are the main themes of the film), the role of fate, chiaroscuro lighting, violence, betrayal, German expressionism. Director John Ford was influenced by German expressionism according to the featurette included with the DVD, and the influence is easy to see in The Informer. The use of light and shadow and dark foggy sets to re-create the city of Dublin emphasizes Gypo’s loneliness and isolation throughout. The fog hems in all the characters in all the outdoor scenes. The effect is to emphasize Gypo’s decision at the start of the film that ripples out to touch most of the characters.
The Informer opens with foreboding music and shadowy silhouettes behind the opening credits. The images imply biblical references, especially the crucifixion: One silhouette, presumably the main character, Gypo Nolan, is seen facing his accusers with arms outstretched. After the credits, the film cuts to a title card: “A certain night in strife-torn Dublin—1922.” Gypo Nolan once worked for what the film refers to as “the organization,” which is a stand-in for the Irish Republican Amy (IRA). Then the biblical references become more obvious because of the cut to the next title card: “Then Judas repented himself—and cast down the thirty pieces of silver—and departed.”
(This blog post about The Informer contains spoilers.)
Gypo Nolan, walking at night on city streets shrouded in fog, sees a poster advertising a £20 reward for the capture of his friend Frankie McPhillip. He tears the poster down, but when he learns that his girlfriend Katie has to turn to prostitution to support herself, Gypo has found his motivation for informing and collecting the reward money. If Gypo and Katie could earn £20, they would have enough money to pay for passage to America for the two of them. All Gypo’s subsequent actions, painful to watch, can be attributed to his desire to help Katie, his remorse, and his desire to forget.
Gypo has been court-martialed, so to speak, from the organization because he couldn’t bring himself to kill “the Tan that killed Quincannon.” The organization members drew lots for the killing, and Gypo got the short match, but he couldn’t bear to hear the man beg for his life and thus let him go. When he reported this turn of events to his leader, Dan Gallagher, he was kicked out of the organization. Gypo is now penniless, jobless, and descending quickly into abject poverty. He cannot help himself, let alone help his girlfriend Katie.
Click here for more information about the Black and Tans, or the Tans, in Ireland. Click here for more information about the film itself.
The narrator of the featurette “The Informer: Out of the Fog” on the DVD says that the screenwriter Dudley Nichols humanized the characters from Liam O’Flaherty’s story and turned it into an expressionistic journey with little dialogue. This same narrator describes Gypo Nolan as a “cowardly despicable brute and a boozing liar.” This observation is essentially true, but it ignores the reasons behind Gypo’s actions. Despicable is not the word that I would use to describe Gypo. John Ford has asked viewers to spend an entire night with him, and it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for Gypo’s plight. Gypo is desperate, however, because he himself is out of a job and has nothing to eat, no place to stay, no change of clothes (he says as much in the film). Gypo is also upset that his girlfriend Katie has to turn to prostitution to support herself. This particular event, which occurs near the start of the film, seems to be the breaking point for Gypo and becomes his motivation for informing and collecting the reward money.
The film starts with biblical references and it ends in a church. Gypo is mortally wounded and stumbles into the church to find Frankie McPhillip’s mother praying for her son’s soul. The conversation between them is especially poignant, and I think this scene provides additional evidence that Gypo is a character to be pitied. Gypo’s story is all too human, a reminder that anyone is a few steps from desperation, and desperation is what noir is all about.