The Informer (1935)

John Ford’s The Informer might best be thought of as a silent film. Or better yet, as a film that relies on its images and sounds, rather than its dialogue, to provide story elements, atmosphere, or character development. The dialogue is fine, but the brilliance of the film lies elsewhere. Ford and his cinematographer Joe August are able to ground the film’s characters (especially its central character, Gypo Nolan) and narrative solidly in the images.

For example, in the opening sequence, Ford sets the mood, the narrative, and the characterization with a series of nearly dialogue-free scenes in the streets of Dublin. The film opens on the shadowy image of Gypo, backlit and walking toward the camera through the foggy Irish night. At this point, his surroundings are impossible to determine. He seems almost not a part of the world, a ghost of a man. A series of these shots continues throughout the opening credit sequence, and already we have a sense that Gypo, the informer, is a man without a home.

A title card just after the credits makes reference to the story of the betrayer Judas. Then the film moves from shadow to reality, as Gypo’s shadow gets smaller and smaller on a nearby wall as he finally enters the frame from the left. His lessening image only contrasts with the man himself, who towers over passing pedestrians. Already the camera hints toward Gypo’s contradictory persona—strong or weak, lies or truths.

Ford’s camera follows Gypo down a Dublin street, where he encounters a wanted poster featuring a man called Frankie McPhillip. Gypo, shrouded in fog, stares long and hard at the poster. As Ford superimposes a happy memory of Frankie and Gypo over the mug shot, we not only get the distinct sense that Gypo knows the pictured criminal, but that he is struggling, like Judas, with whether or not to betray a friend. As he tears down the poster in anger, we perhaps can see this isn’t the first time Gypo has pondered this course.

The film then moves to three consecutive sequences, each of which is punctuated with that same wanted poster blowing into the frame. In the first, Gypo continues down the street, stopping only to listen to a young man singing an Irish ballad on the corner. As the man sings about the beauty of the Irish night and sea, Gypo stands removed from his countrymen, alone in the gloomy night. The camera’s focus turns to the poster, which, as if following Gypo, blows right on to his leg, sticking there and causing him some effort to remove it. But Gypo is no friend of the British either, quickly scurrying into the fog as a squad of “tans” rounds the corner. This all sets up the tragedy of Gypo Nolan beautifully, without words, save the song—a man without a home, lost in a moral fog, and even when surrounded by people, stands apart from all.

In the next sequence, a woman with covered head looks toward a rich man. Removing the shawl from her golden hair, she offers herself to the man with noting more than a look. As she walks by, Frankie’s poster catches on her feet, signaling her impending role in the Frankie McPhillip business, as well as indicating Gypo’s impending arrival. Just as the rich man approaches her, Gypo arrives. Perceiving the situation, he runs in to protect his female friend, throwing the man into the street. Here we get the only spoken dialogue of this sequence, as Gypo and Katie lament their poverty, speak of going to America for the required twenty pounds, and then break as Katie’s guilt causes her to ridicule Gypo’s reaction to her selling herself.

Finally, we see one final set of feet, those of Frankie McPhillip himself. As he walks down the city street, the poster blows up to him. Frankie picks it up, sees how much reward is being offered, and then quickly runs away to hide from another squad of “tans.” He is in the city, and the stage is set. The conflict is clear, though the night is anything but.

Ford accomplishes this set up in under ten minutes with only a minimum of dialogue. This aids the inherent suspense in the situation because it allows the viewer the freedom to make the connections of the narrative himself. And it makes clear the foggy moral morass that will imbue the film throughout.

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