Thursday, February 16, 2017

OVP: The Informer (1935)

Film: The Informer (1935)
Stars: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame, Una O'Connor
Director: John Ford
Oscar History: 6 nominations/4 wins (Best Picture, Director*, Actor-Victor McLaglen*, Adapted Screenplay*, Score*, Editing)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

My brother and I used to, when we were little, play a game.  In the era before IMDB or Wikipedia, before even we had a secret Oscars handbook that I hid from my parents as they thought I talked about the Oscars too much, we had an almanac that listed out the winners in the Big 6 categories and we would recite them over-and-over to see who had seen the most.  As a result, there's a weird place in my heart for when I, some twenty years later, will change the answer to a question I've said "no" to most of my life to a "yes."  That was the case with The Informer which I just saw for the first time, a movie that took home two of the big Oscars in a year that I have now officially seen all of the big winners (11-year-old John is high-fiving me through time right now).

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is surprisingly short, and takes place all in one night.  The movie follows Gypo Nolan (McLaglen), a down-on-his-luck drunk who has been kicked out of the IRA during the Irish War of Independence because he refused to kill a black-and-tan.  With his girlfriend Katie (Grahame) begging him to get her passage to America, and lamenting the lack of a 10-pound note, Gypo finds an opportunity to turn his best friend Frankie in to the police, as a result gaining passage for both he and Katie to America.  However, Frankie dies during a police chase and Gypo, overcome with grief, begins spiraling and spending his money all across town, eventually getting caught by the IRA for snitching, and is gunned down in a fight, but gains forgiveness for his sins from Frankie's mother before he dies.

The film may be over 80 years old, but like most of John Ford's finest films, you don't feel that age much as it progresses.  The movie's universal themes of truth, trust, poverty, and sacrifice surely resonate today, particularly that line between doing what's best for one's self and one's brothers.  It's easy to see parallels to the Holocaust or the Red Scare or Civil Rights or modern-day immigration laws in what he's trying to tell, and does the impossible for an issues film-it actually feels more relevant even outside of the confines of its particular time-and-place.

Part of that is the direction and writing, which is masterful-Ford focuses on universal truths here, on the haves and have-nots of society, and particularly how greed doesn't always come from a bad place.  Here we have Gypo trying to provide a life for his love that he can't provide otherwise, and while we are meant to see the parallels between him and other evil figures of history (there's a quote about Judas in the opening credits), Ford clearly sees Gypo as a sympathetic figure, and rightly so-there are no true villains here, only men trying to find their place in the world.  It's a compelling case for a movie, and in my opinion one of Ford's finest.

The film's central performance won something of a surprise Oscar in 1935, with McLaglen besting two of the era's biggest stars (Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, and in an unknowing twist a third one with Paul Muni getting a write-in nomination).  While vote-splitting could probably be attributed as to why, the reality is that McLaglen nails this performance in a way that not even Laughton does with Bligh.  It's a towering achievement like few I've seen from this era-a piece-of-work that is set apart by his sympathy for his character, showing his weaknesses despite a lumbering physical strength.  Look at the way he throws money away, trying to buy back his sins, and how he truly does all of this for one woman.  McLaglen would later be more famous as comic relief for John Wayne and Cary Grant, but I've never seen him more naturalistic and superb as he is here as a leading man, someone bereft of humanity, who cannot find an escape even after he sold his soul to achieve one.

Those are my thoughts-what about yours?  I weighed in on four of the Oscar nods (the editing is also strong, though the scoring probably doesn't soar as much as you'd expect from a work of this era, though it's Max Steiner so it's hardly lacking in quality), but how many do you think the film deserved?  Is this one of your favorite John Ford movies, because I'm shocked at how excellent this is and it probably joins that position for me.  Share your comments below, particularly those of you who have seen this and Mutiny on the Bounty.

No comments: