Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The John Ford Blogathon: Ford and The Informer (1935)


"For a director there are commercial rules that it is necessary to obey. In our profession, an artistic failure is nothing; a commercial failure is a sentence. The secret is to make films that please the public and also allow the director to reveal his personality."

The "baby" of his family, 19-year-old John Feeney, Jr. followed his successful actor/director elder brother Francis Ford to Hollywood in 1914.  The son of Irish immigrants would be successful beyond imagining, growing up with an industry and helping it to grow.  At the Francis Ford serial unit at Universal, Ford learned by doing everything - stunts, extra, assisting cameramen and directors, and writing.  By the age of 22 the newly billed Jack Ford was a full-fledged director of westerns and collaborating with the great actor Harry Carey.  At 25 he became a contract director at Fox Studios where, in addition to westerns, his talents were put to use in dramas, crime pictures and comedies.  It was noticeable to the public and the studio that Ford was an able and reliable movie director.  Occasionally critics would take note as well at his unerring eye and way with a story.

"It's no use talking to me about art, I make pictures to pay the rent."

He protests too much.  John Ford continually pushed himself as a creator and that often placed him in positions of conflict with budget and time conscious officials.  While shooting backgrounds in Europe for the 1928 release Four Sons Ford met and became friends with F.W. Murnau, soon to work for Fox.  Ford studied the German filmmakers methods of pre-production and their sophisticated visual techniques, bringing those to his WWI drama.

"I'm a journeyman director, a traffic cop in front of the camera, but the best traffic cop in Hollywood."

The "traffic cop" may have been proud of his working class attitude toward the job, but obviously yearned for more control over content as his contract at Fox/20th Century Fox allowed for freelance work.  The freelance clause would prove most fortuitous for a singular project when Ford met the Irish author Liam O'Flaherty and in 1933 optioned his award winning 1925 novel The Informer.  The novel spoke to Ford's Irish soul and his artist's heart.

"It's going to be very hard to find a studio that will back this picture.  It's very different from the usual fare."

Ford knew his industry and was not welcomed when he shopped his and Dudley Nichols (The Long Voyage Home, The Lost Patrol) treatment of The Informer at the various studios.  Merian C. Cooper at RKO was fearless enough in spirit and looking for something artistic to compliment the great commercial success he had experienced with King Kong.  It was the beginning of a friendship and a business partnership resulting in Argosy Pictures.

The budget for the film as $243,000 and the soundstage a building formerly used for storage.  

"I'm going to build all the production values into the camera."

Ford and Nichols had pared the story down to its essential dialogue and Ford was excited about a stylistic approach to the shoot, giving a sense of the mystical in the fogbound night and the foggy mind of the leading character, Gypo Nolan.  Meticulous planning and storyboarding was carried out with cinematographer Joseph August (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, They Were Expendable), art director Van Nest Polglase (Citizen Kane, Top Hat), set decorator Julia Heron (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bishop's Wife) and composer Max Steiner (King Kong, Gone With the Wind).


Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan

It is 1920, the height of the "the troubles" in Ireland when the brutish, but loyal Gypo Nolan foolishly seizes upon an opportunity to get a little money and save his girlfriend Katie from prostitution and give them a new life.  He informs on his best friend Frankie McPhillip, wanted for murder by the British.  Gypo's love for his friend hasn't died, but he sees a way out and takes it.  Perhaps he didn't foresee Frankie's death at the hands of the police.  Gypo is not one who thinks very far ahead.  The enormity of his betrayal he both understands and denies.  While the local IRA commander Dan Gallagher hunts for the informer, Gypo wanders through the city in increasing remorse and in trying to run away from himself, he loses all his money at the prodding of a fair weather friend and drink.  Brought to trial by his former comrades the frightened Gypo struggles to divert blame and escape.  Katie pleads with the commander for the hapless soul, but what Gypo set in motion cannot be stopped.  

Victor McLaglen was the only choice Ford had for Nolan and the director constantly kept his lead off balance to achieve the performance he desired.  Often noted for over-the-top cruelty toward some actors, one wonders whether or not it was necessary, but the proof is in the performance.  The Informer was McLaglen's seventh picture with Ford and he would vow never to work with him again.  He would appear in five more Ford movies.


John Ford 
1895 - 1973

The Informer opened at Radio City Music Hall to glowing critical response, but little box office.  Surprisingly, to Hollywood brains, it was in the smaller cities throughout the country that The Informer gathered steam.  If audiences were at first taken aback by the unexpected Ford/ McLaglen collaboration, they were impressed.

Ford was awarded the first of four Oscars for Best Director for The Informer; the other titles being The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man.  The nomination for Stagecoach was caught up in the Gone With the Wind juggernaut.  However, with The Informer John Ford's reputation as a director of artistic merit was now assured.  

The Informer is, to this date, the only film to win the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Picture by a unanimous vote on the first ballot.  John Ford was acclaimed Best Director.  The National Board of Review named The Informer Best Picture.

Oscar wins
Best Actor in a leading role, Victor McLaglen
Best Director, John Ford
Best Writing, screenplay, Dudley Nichols
Best Music, score, Max Steiner

Oscar nominations
Best Picture (winner, Mutiny on the Bounty)
Best Editing, George Hivey (winner, Ralph Dawson, A Midsummer Night's Dream)

At the time of the release of The Informer John Ford was active in the Screen Directors Guild as treasurer and fervent supporter of labor.  The Guild boycotted the Academy Awards that year and Dudley Nichols and John Ford refused their awards.  A few months after the event John Ford chose to accept his well-deserved award and his ties with the Guild were irreparably broken.

In the cyclical nature of motion picture criticism and assessment, The Informer has gone through periods where it has taken hits as "not living up to its reputation", even from its creator.  I don't know where it stands currently in the minds of the great thinkers.  Personally, the characters, the conflict and the masterfully controlled and visually exciting storytelling leaves my gut wrenched and my heart singing.

I'm very grateful that Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Nonplussed are hosting The John Ford Blogathon from July 7 - 13 and so will you be when you check out the insightful articles from passionate writers.    
   


Quotes
Pappy: The Life of John Ford by Dan Ford

24 comments:

  1. A fee years ago, I read a book about the so-called 'troubles' in Ireland. It has a long history, and it's difficult to say for certain who's right and who's wrong. It's not the sort of subject I'd expect to see tackled in a film from the 30s, so I think I'm gonna have to add this to my list. How political does the story get?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The story told is a personal one. The character's stories act as a microcosm for the larger picture.

      In the early 20s Ford visited cousins in Ireland, including one IRA member with a price on his head. He was repeatedly questioned by the British and roughed up a bit before returning to the States.

      Delete
  2. This is such a wonderful entry on Ford's "The Informer!" Christy

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ah, you picked a fine classic for the blogathon, Caftan Woman! The Informer and Odd Man Out are my two favorite Irish downers. Luckily, there's always The Quiet Man to cheer me back up again!

    ReplyDelete
  4. What would we do without "The Quiet Man", but cry in our beer all day?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Good choice! Sadly, I have never had the chance to see this from beginning to end. You've done a wonderful job of reviewing it that I'm starting to feel a little panicked. I've gotta see this one all the way through!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope the opportunity to see "The Informer" happens soon. We can't have you panicked!

      Delete
  6. Love this quote: "I'm a journeyman director, a traffic cop in front of the camera, but the best traffic cop in Hollywood." This film sounds fascinating. I'll have to check it out-

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The film is certainly worth your time, Leah. It's interesting to read Ford's opinion of himself, or at least the opinion he wanted people to think he had.

      Delete
  7. I don't know if I'm a great thinker, but in my mind it is a brilliant film. I can't choose my favorite John Ford movie, but The Informer is definetely in the Top 3.
    I didn't know it was difficult to start making the movie. But the used storage building was certainly perfect for its tone.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. It is not an easy film to dismiss and I'm glad to hear it is in your top 3.

      Delete
  8. So happy you wrote about this as I haven't actually seen it and, whilst researching The Grapes of Wrath read quite a lot about how this had cemented the credentials that got Ford that role. Can't wait to watch it - thank you :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "The Informer" is certainly essential Ford. TCM will be screening the movie on September 29th at 2:00 in the morning.

      Delete
  9. I need to see this film! The only thing I really knew about this film prior to reading your write-up, is of all the Oscars it won. Fantastic article!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much. I'm sure you'll be impressed with the mood the film creates. Next on TCM: 9/29 at 2 am.

      Delete
  10. A great film, and certainly gut-wrenching. Your remark on the cyclical nature of film criticism is well taken, but there is artistry in this movie that soars above its faults, certainly above trendy looks back. The Madonna-like image of Una O'Connor at the end always gets me. Such a great cast. Thanks for a another look at this film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I find "The Infomer", like so much of Ford's work, speaks to me on different levels at different times. Always fresh.

      Delete
  11. Paddy, being from a family of both Irish and Italians, THE INFORMER was one of the films in our family that taught us about "The Troubles,"and the film really touched us kids. It was also the first film I saw with with Una O'Connor. (Quite a difference between the lighter films we knew, like THE QUIET MAN! Wow!) It brought us to tears! Your post touched me. This was a superb pick for the John Ford Blogathon, my friend!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Dorian.

      Some stories, and the way they are told, stay with us. Ford had a way of getting under our skin.

      Delete
  12. Excellent post on of Ford's finest early films. It's just as powerful now as the first time I saw it. Victor McLaglen had a tendency to overplay a role, but he (or probably Ford) keeps those practices in check in THE INFORMER.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. I agree that "The Informer" truly has stood the test of time. I can't see it ever losing its power.

      Delete
  13. Enjoyed your post about a film I don't think I've ever seen. Perhaps the subject matter wasn't something I wanted to deal with. But your post made me think I might change my mind. My favorite John Ford film is, predictably I suppose, THE SEARCHERS, though SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON and STAGECOACH also linger in my affection. In STAGECOACH I fell in love with (of all people) John Carradine as the gambler....sigh.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yvette, I think "The Informer" would be of great interest to you, both as a story and in its telling.

      I can relate to your feelings for Hatfield in "Stagecoach". Carradine gives us a lot to admire and wonder about in that displaced gentleman. Subtle work from actor and director.

      Delete