Tuesday, September 13, 2011

#51 - The Informer

BACK-STORY: “The Informer” is a movie about the Irish Republican Army set in Dublin in 1922. It won John Ford his first Oscar for Best Director. It was based on the novel by Liam O’Flaherty. It was released in 1935 and although not a box office hit, it was critically acclaimed. It was nominated for Best Picture (losing to “Mutiny on the Bounty”). It won for Actor (Victor McLaglen), Screenplay (Dudley Nichols), Score (Max Steiner), and Director. The studio did not want to make the picture because of its depressing nature. When the execs were convinced that Ford was worth the risk, they insisted that he stay under a $250,000 budget. Ford gave up his salary, shot the film in 17 days and brought it in around $243,000.

OPENING: Gypo Owen (McLaglen) sees a wanted poster for his best friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford). He rips the poster down. The wind-blown poster will reappear in scenes coming up. British soldiers called “Tans” rove the streets intimidating the Irish. Gypo is down on his luck. He was recently kicked out of the IRA because he refused to execute a Tan. Frankie meets Gypo in a flop house and mentions he is going to sneak home to see his mum and sister. Gypo is tempted to claim the reward for Frankie because his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame) has turned to prostitution and dreams of starting a new life in America.

SUMMARY: Gypo succumbs to temptation and the fact that he is a dumb ox. He goes to the police station and rats out Frankie for the 20 pound reward. The Tans catch Frankie at his mother’s house and kill him in a fierce gun battle. Gypo, wracked with grief, buys some whiskey and starts a binge to end all binges. (Being Irish his alcohol consumption is remarkable only in its extreme quantity.) He lies to Katie, telling her he robbed a sailor for the new-found money.

"My best friend is worth 20 pounds!"
     Gypo goes to Frankie’s wake to try to look innocent, but being drunk and stupid and suddenly flush with cash is not a good combination for him. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to solve this case. He is called to see the local IRA commander, a man named Gallagher (Preston Foster). He is told he will be reinstated if he helps find the informer. It’s clear they suspect him, so he fingers a patsy named Mulligan claiming he had a grudge against McPhillip.

"Fish and chips, on me!"
     By this time the prodigious drinking has made Gypo careless and belligerent. He knocks out a snob and then a cop, but he buys the love of the crowd with fish and chips. That 20 pounds is going fast. Next Gypo and a sychophant visit a “gentleman’s club” that is not a brothel because all the girls are wearing hats. (The hats were Ford’s way of getting around the censors.) More money slips away. It’s rapidly approaching the point where Gypo and Katie will not be able to afford a cab ride across town, much less a trip to America.

     Gypo is summoned to a board of inquiry hosted by Gallagher. He accuses the befuddled Mulligan, but he has an alibi. The court turns its attention to the obviously guilty Gypo and he confesses after some grilling. He is thrown in a cell while Gallagher’s henchmen draw straws to see who will shoot him. The quivering, short straw drawer lets Gypo escape. He goes to Katie’s room. They’ll never look for him there, right? When Gallagher and McPhillip’s sister (Heather Angel – nominated for Best Actress) arrive, Katie pleas for forgiveness. No dice.

CLOSING: Gypo emerges from hiding and fights his way out only to be shot three times on the doorstep by one of Gallagher’s men. The bullets go through his clothing without leaving holes! The executioner conveniently does not stick around for any last words. Gypo stumbles into the nearby church where he finds Mrs. McPhillip and gets her forgiveness before he dies.


Acting - 7

Action - 5

Accuracy - 8

Realism – 6

Plot - 6

Overall - 5

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Possibly. There are some strong female characters. The violence is tame. It is firmly PG-rated. If they don’t like war movies, no problem here.

ACCURACY: The movie is set in the Irish War of Independence. This conflict began in 1919. The Irish Republican Army conducted a guerrilla war against the British authorities. Those authorities included the Temporary Constables, better known as the “Black and Tans” (or simply “Tans” in the movie). They were mostly WWI veterans recruited for counterinsurgency in Ireland. Not surprisingly, atrocity was met by atrocity as in all guerrilla wars. Both sides were big on reprisals. The Tans did pay for information and given the nature of the conflict, informers were not uncommon. Although the movie is not based on a true story, it could have happened. We can assume some of the informers were alcoholic dumbasses.

     The war lasted until 1921 when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was negotiated giving southern Ireland its independence and retaining Northern Ireland for the United Kingdom. At this point conflict broke out within the IRA between the pro and anti-treaty forces. And, of course, the insurgency moved into Northern Ireland. This would seem to indicate that either the timing or the location of the movie is historically inaccurate. It is set in Dublin in 1922. It should have been set in Belfast in 1922 or Dublin in 1921. This is a minor quibble, but still a perplexing mistake.

CRITIQUE: The movie is very dark and foggy. It takes place in one night and a foggy one at that. This fits the mood of betrayal central to the plot. It is impossible to imagine the movie being set in the daytime. Gypo is essentially Judas turning in his friend for 20 pounds instead of 30 pieces of silver. We sympathize with Gypo because he is a likable lug, but in some ways he is more despicable than Judas. At least Judas did his treachery out of misguided principle and committed suicide when the consequences dawned on him. Gypo is motivated by desire for the money and to impress a lady. He compounds his sin by fingering an innocent man. The movie makes it clear that the decision to turn in Frankie was spur of the moment and much of the subsequent actions are based on the effects of alcohol. I wonder if the movie would have been stronger if Gypo’s actions were not tainted by drunkenness.

     The acting is good with McLaglen the standout. However, I do not think his performance warranted an Oscar. It is a bit hammy. According to legend, Ford got this performance out of McLaglen through tricks like telling him he would have the day off knowing he would get drunk and then suddenly putting him in front of the cameras with a raging hangover. These tales are probably apochryphal. McLaglen made twelve movies for Ford and Ford once said that being drunk made it impossible to play a drunk. No doubt a sober McLaglen could play a drunk from experience. I know one thing, if McLaglen was drinking real whiskey during the filming, he would have died of alcohol poisoning! Gypo was super Irish.

      If I was covering this movie as part of my “Classic or Antique?” series, I would have to consign it to the antique bin. It is quaint. The acting is stereotypical. The death of Gypo sans blood or bullet holes is expected, but ridiculous. The fights are fake with missed punches. The city looks like Hollywood’s idea of an Irish town. The old school atmospherics and score hold up well, but overall the movie does not.

CONCLUSION:  I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record, but this is another movie that does not belong on the list because it is not a war movie and it is not even very good.


  1. I'm interested in anything covering the Irish Civil War, War of Independence or the Troubles that's why I'm going to see if I can track it down. Plus I love foggy. Still I do believe you when you say it isn't one of the best and shouldn't be on the 100 list. Knowing my tastes it could still appeal.

  2. Foggy and dark. I would be very interested to hear what you think of it. It's not bad for an old movie, but nothing special.

  3. The movie critics on MH's panel may have stretched the definition of "war movie" to include some of their own favorites (The Informer, The Third Man, Notorious, Casablanca, The Manchurian Candidate). We could probably argue all day about whether "war" should include the Cold War or the Irish War of Independence. And, for professional movie critics, some directors, like Orson Welles and John Ford, are the emperor's new clothes. Those directors were brilliant, but some critics are just irrational on the subject. Ford himself resisted the efforts of critics and students to build a cult around him. When an interviewer asked how he filmed a stampede scene in "Three Bad Men," Ford grumbled, "With a camera."

  4. Excellent input. I agree with everything you say. However, Military History put out an entire magazine on their Greatest 100 and should have figured that it would be bought by people like me who would have found some of their selections laughable. It's one thing for critics to bulls hit each other, it's another to try to fool people like you and me. I actually have more of a problem with them taking a great movie like "Last of the Mohicans", deciding it qualifies as a war movie, and then ranking it so low. Same can be said for "Casablanca".


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.