The whole “early, perhaps first, sound masterpiece” line, de rigueur for some when discussing The Informer, is misleading and beside the point. Bluntly, it is Ford’s visual craft that is the linchpin of The Informer, and its mise-en-scene and editing rhythms are obviously the work of a director who had been toiling away in the silent cinema nexus for years. Furthermore, they are specifically the progeny of a director who had mayhaps seen the Universal horror pictures popping up and taking the world by storm in the early ‘30s and taken to investigating their connection to the silent German masterworks of chiaroscuro and terror that American horror cinema was grafted from in the first place. The voluminous expressiveness of the human face, the foggy mist of human underbelly, the no-exits-allowed editing that sabotages the characters and encases them in the frame? All are the stomping ground of many a silent masterwork to come before, but that doesn’t make Ford’s first weltering sidewind into the big leagues any less effective as a duel between the devilish and the divine.
Well, maybe a smidgen less effective, all things told. Certainly, there’s little experimentation with sound in this brackish midnight fright about the skulking, lurking terror of life in Ireland with the IRA rebellion nipping at your soul and personal identity torn between not only nations but, more importantly, friendship and personal rituals of self-identification. With superlatives like “early sound masterpiece” thrown around, one is tempted to superimpose The Informer onto Fritz Lang’s M, the first real stone-cold sound masterpiece and a study in the provocative but not all-encompassing possibility of sound in film as an added weapon to a director’s arsenal but not a suffocating, one-size-fits-all tool to use at the expense of the visual realm. Comparatively, The Informer is merely a great film and a sound film, rather than inescapably a great sound film.
Great it is though, with a primordial narrative about an Irish rebel (Gypo Nolan, played by Victor McLaglen) being denied rebel status proper and turning coat to inform on his close rebel friend to the British, who in turn murder the friend, the spillover effect of which is to curdle Nolan’s soul with fear and guilt. The Informer is a death-caked premonition of the film noir, an omen of not only Irish desperation but the doom of the Great Depression and the near-future European trauma skulking around the corner. Historical context aside, The Informer is a dynamite-keg of expressionistic touches and galvanizing visual death that incurred the Academy’s Best Director Oscar (the first of four Ford would receive, none for Westerns if you can imagine it). It’s easy to assume the Academy sequestered the Western off into the grotto of “boy’s genre” cinema, but, The Informer cinematically being so analogous to both the gangster and horror genres at the time leaves the Academy’s willingness to reward this film and not, say, Stagecoach or The Searchers a puzzling devil indeed.
Anyway, it is thrilling to see Ford experimenting with styles he would soon after, if not renounce, reconsider in his shift toward more sweepingly poetic cinema (although Stagecoach, his earliest great Western, bears the same belligerent efficiency as this hoarse powder-keg of a film). Really, with Joseph August’s subfuscous, every-shade-of-grey cinematography, The Informer is the sort of film that makes you bless the existence of black-and-white cinema and curse the advent of color (Ford himself would recompense for this by directing some of the most singularly moving color showpieces in history, making him uniquely acclimatized to the discrepancies in black-and-white and color film and ready to weaponize both). Dropping the expressive, crestfallen McLaglen into a torrid limbo of strangulating buildings and sidewinding, mist-caked streets, the film corporealizes the psychological disjuncture of McLaglen’s existentially destructive mind by transporting him to a visual prison that is at once grounded in tactility and not of this earth. It girders the mental architecture of a film that seems to precipice him at the chokepoint of being engulfed by the buildings around him and being imprisoned in his mind so much that this external world is completely lost for him to begin with.
George Hively’s editing corroborates the moody disfigurement of the film as well, seldom gifting the characters any escape paths and frequently cutting to their fronts as if to block or stifle them when they wish to escape from the camera that strangles them so. Masterpiece or no, The Informer is a masterpiece of visual craft, even if the particular craft is just a notch more evolutionary and less revolutionary than something like The Searchers. Much like a tone poem, the sensibility of The Informer is readily available from the first scene, and every successive cut is a simple tightening of the screws until the singularity drive of the mood is almost impossible to withstand.
Other, more cunning touches abound. Ford uncannily applies the then-known “film them from below” technique to extraterrestrialize the already tall McLaglen, not to empower or embolden him, as per usual, but to almost drown him with the frame he can’t seem to fit in. Rather than controlling the camera by remaining its focus, he seems to be eaten by it. Meanwhile, Ford inlays spots of superimposed light into the frame, rebelliously used here not to signal a saving grace but an open wound that others can utilize to see, and potentially kill, Nolan. Elsewhere, the director, in his relative youth, even displays the wonderful indiscretion to break the reality principle so common to the early sound films and impose flickers of Nolan’s superimposed psychological mind onto the film, like flairs of Nolan’s unconscious escaping into the world to remind him of his guilt.
Thankfully, Dudley Nichols’ gravel-ridden screenplay is never once afflicted with the disease of over-writing, imagining a vacant playground for the script’s executors to fulfill the potential of. Essentially everyone involved does exactly that, maybe not as well as they would again – at least in Ford’s case – but The Informer is so asymmetrical with regards to the director’s canon that, in its own elegantly straightforward, deliciously primitive way, it’s no less exciting than anything he would go on to make, and certainly much more kindled with cinematic verve and vigor than your average Academy favorite in 1935, 2016, or any other year.