The Informer was quite the talk of the town when it came out; director John Ford had been given a micro-budget for the production, and the film he turned out on that budget was one of the biggest contenders at the Academy Awards that year. It stands to reason then that the film would be one of the year’s best, at least from as close to an objective viewpoint as one can try and manage. I finally sat down to watch it today, and at a mere 90 minutes, I felt like it would be a simple and rewarding watch. What I got from the film instead was… merely okay, at best. It’s a small-minded picture; it had to be on the budget that was given it, but I guess I was expecting a little more substance than what I got. Ford directs the hell out of it, but this film is about 45 minutes of plot stretched to feature length, and it feels like it could’ve been covered in a weekly episodical rather than a full-length picture.
Gypo Nolan is a poor Irishman with nary a cent to his name, trying to make his way in Ireland with his girl Katie after being kicked out of the Irish rebel army. One day, he finds his old IRA pal Frankie McPhillip, who has a 20 pound bounty on his head, in town visiting his family in secret, and Gypo, desperate for the money to send him and Katie to America, decides to inform the police on Frankie and collect the bounty. Frankie is killed trying to escape, and the still-active IRA is now committed to finding out who tipped off the police on Frankie before the informer rats out the whole organization. Much has been made of the small budget Ford was given to make this film, and how he went on and won the Oscar for Best Director anyway; truly, Ford achieves a hell of a lot with the little he had. Mostly, this was done by Ford keeping the film as close-quartered as he could, and the focus even smaller, creating a strange intimacy to the proceedings, almost as if there is no world outside the confines of the action on the screen. Almost as focused as the camera is the production design, filling the screen with smoke and grime and filth so encompassing it feels inescapable. For all that the film does manage to do, however, I couldn’t help but feel that the plot and script of the film could’ve used with a little bit of beefing up, to put it plainly. Without spoiling basically the entire picture, the film covers a single night of incredibly straightforward events, and makes it out to be much more than what it really is, with the effect that the film feels spread far too thinly to be of real substantive value. Add to it Victor McLaglen, whose acting consisted of largely coming off as drunk and as Irish as he could, and you have a film that only barely gets by on the sheer effort of the production team alone.
According to Academy records, this was one of the few years that the films that came in second and third in the voting for Best Picture were also disclosed along with the winner, and The Informer apparently came in second at the Oscars for the big one. For the life of me, I’m really unable to discern what it is about this film that made so many people fall in love with it. I’ll give Ford his due credit, and indeed I’d be hard-pressed to argue against his win for Best Director, but aside from him and the gritty production value, there was only half a film’s worth of value here, and what value there was was stretched paper-thin. Even McLaglan’s win for Best Actor felt undeserved, given only because the three-way nomination for Mutiny on the Bounty’s leads must have split the voting between them. Ford’s done better work, to be sure, and this absolutely feels like an early picture of his; it’s worth a look if you’re going on a John Ford bender, but otherwise, there’s not really enough here to warrant even the scant running time it has, and I’m actually sorry to have to say that about it.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10