The Informer

UK (1929) Dir. Arthur Robison

I can assure you that the timing of my watching of this classic silent film adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s celebrated 1925 crime novel is purely coincidental given the subject in relation to the political furore that has arisen in the fall out of last night’s (at time of writing) UK election.

Set in the newly independent Ireland of 1922, a meeting by a group of political activists is interrupted by an attack from an opposing group leading to a shoot out. Unaware the attacking group had fled, Francis McPhilip (Carl Harbord) accidentally shoots the chief of police as he arrives on the scene, and is advised to leave the country for his own safety.

While saying goodbye to his lover Katie Fox (Lya De Putti), Francis discovers that fellow party member and best friend Gypo Nolan (Lars Hanson) has also been seeing Katie. Following an argument with Gypo, Katie vows to leave with Francis, prompting an angry Gypo to betray Francis to the police. Francis being killed during a standoff with the police puts Gypo at odds with the rest of the party for his actions.

This is quite an interesting film for a number of reasons – it’s British made, directed by a German from a novel by an Irish man and stars a Swede and a Hungarian! Thank God it’s a silent film, you are probably thinking, right? Wrong! The Informer was made during the transition to sound and like many films from this period, a sort of sound version as made too.

I say sort of as on this occasion this was half a sound film. The first 45 minutes was left silent with added sound effects (such as gunfire, bangs and crashes), with the remainder featuring added dialogue. Not everything was completely re-shot – you can clearly see much of the original footage remained when no-one was talking – but the difference between the two sessions is evident by the lack of movement due to the rudimentary sound recording via fixed microphones.

Back to the story and it is fascinating to see a politically relevant film from this period even if the politics have been toned down for wider consumption. In the original novel the party were known as the Revolutionary Organization, or the IRA to you and me, but British film censorship at the time wouldn’t allow such direct references. To give them the benefit of the doubt they don’t indulge in any terrorist activity; in the opening scene they are discussing their peaceful resolution to their issues.

The Party is headed by Gallagher (Warwick Ward) who assumes the mantle of de facto antagonist once the Gypo (unfortunate name I know) mess hits the fan. Francis was defending Katie, the lone female party member, during the shootout when he shot the police chief which sets the scene for his endless run of misfortune. Knowing he would be gone for good, Francis gallantly steps aside to let Katie and Gypo be a couple, but little do they know that Katie is playing them both.

Unusually for her time, Katie is brazen about her sexual allure and seems inherently selfish with this awareness, flipping between Gypo and Francis according to how it benefits her; later she even offers herself to Gallagher to get him to lay off Gypo. It could be argued she is acting out of love and genuine concern for once but minutes later a piece of circumstantial evidence seemingly implicating Gyppo turns the tide again.

I don’t know the novel but the adapted script is a masterclass in taking innocuous and incidental moments and turning them into vital, game changing tools for a dramatic plot twist. There are plenty – you can see them for yourselves – but each one is smartly integrated into the plot, not just to move things along but to illustrate Gypo’s internal struggle with his conscience, only to come back to haunt him later on with tragic repercussions.

John Ford remade this film in 1935 and since his forte was the Western, I am curious as to what his take of it is. German director Arthur Robison handles this as a film noir complete with expected touches of the German Expressionist mise-en-scene adding that extra ominous edge to the visual flair. Shadows are well employed in heightening drama as are teasing camera shots from unusual angles, some involving mirrors.

However the re-shot scenes in the sound version sees the artistic flair noticeably compromised where the actors are forced to remain rooted to the spot. Because the leads are non-English speakers their lines are dubbed while they speak slowly and looking very awkward. Making it worse is the voice actors are speaking in an upper-class English accent, as do most of the English actors, with attempts at an Irish accent coming across as Cockney!

This disastrous discrepancy aside, the performances are rather strong, with Hanson foregoing any reliance on his matinee idol looks to take Gypo on a journey of declining emotional and physical fortunes. Foxy Lya De Putti injects plenty of moxy in Katie to expose the weakness of the men around her even if morally she is rather corrupt, while British actor Carl Harbord makes a decent impression during his short involvement.

Something Robison shows great skill for is the ability to marry the arresting imagery with the story giving both to complement each other. It was sometimes too easy in the silent era to rely on being visually stylish and forget the story, but in this instance the balance is right. One can see in the extended cast close-ups in the sound version however in which medium Robison’s comfort zone obviously was.

This newly restored HD transfer from BFI is superb and should help lift The Informer from relative obscurity to greater prominence among film buffs. To get the maximum experience from it though, stick to the silent version.

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