Saturday, 15 October 2016

Trust and honour... The Informer (1929), BFI, London Film Festival Archive Gala with Garth Knox Ensemble

This was a World premiere of a stunning new restoration that once again proved the power of late British silent film… The Informer was directed by a German and starred a Swede, was made in Elstree and was all about Ireland. We have always been so European and long may that continue!

Like Blackmail, A Cottage on Dartmoor and others, The Informer was made as both a silent and a talkie and was shot separately for both formats. Bryony Dixon, introducing, showed a clip from both that illustrated perfectly the backwards step talking pictures were – like some sort of cinematic Brexit. A change in one aspect led to a long list of negative consequences as those who brought the noise, focused on the one thing at the expense of all the others: camera fluidity, performance, shot-making and overall cinematic elegance.

In the talking sequence a group of Irish republicans interrogate a young woman, there’s shouting, flat lighting and clod-hoping pace whilst in the other the atmospherics come first and the narrative actually moves ahead more effectively through quickness of expression and thought - clearly it was early days and the silent way was the skills-preference of a crew including noted German cinematographers Werner Brandes and Theodor Sparkuhl but… how many decades did it take to truly get all of the magic back?

Lya De Putti and Carl Harbord
This is a powerful film that pulls no punches, taking the hard road with a cast able to carry its opening lightness of tone forward into the dramatic depths of betrayal: of love and of country. It proves, if proof were needed, that Lars Hanson was one of the supreme actors of his age as he provides as perfect an example of naturalistic pantomime as you’ll see in the film’s emotionally exhausting closing sequence.

The archive gala is usually the silent film highlight of the Festival and this was no exception with the BFI team having done a superb job on a mix of source materials. The sound version was restored ten years ago but, after seeing this I can’t think of a single reason to watch it.

As is usual, the restoration was accompanied by a new score this time from Garth Knox with a crack six-piece ensemble featuring Garth on viola/viola d'amore, Eliza Marshall flute/alto flute/whistles, Frode Haltli on accordion, Joby Burgess percussion, Robert White uilleann pipes and Mary Scully on double bass. Top players from across the spectrum of classical, folk and the West End.

The result was emotionally-intellgent and stirring, working in perfect tune with the tumult of the performances and the narrative flow. Amongst many highlights there is one especially clever scene where Katie Fox (Lya De Putti) puts on a 78 to cover the sound of smuggling the fugitive Francis McPhilip (Carl Harbord) out of her flat and the group created a perfect simulation of a poorly-wound record player – violin bow scratches and skips and a slowing down of tempo as the tension mounts and the record slows down to reveal the sounds of getaway.

Lars Hanson and Lya De Putti
This attention to detail was matched by some thrilling Celtic lines, the insertion of Danny Boy (natch!) and a punchy performance that flavoured but didn’t overwhelm the moving images above.
Based on Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel, the story focuses on a group of revolutionary working class Irish republicans. The Informer is overwhelmingly more about the group's human frailties than their politics which, given the film’s Elstree routes, you might expect but still, these are principled people and not monsters: imagine a contemporary film about terrorists…

One of the group, Francis, accidentally shoots the chief of police and has to go on the run. He can’t stick it though and returns in secret to the house of Katie Fox his ex-sweetheart. Katie has moved onto the slightly more dashing Gypo (Lars, returned to Europe and fresh from Lillian Gish in The Wind and Greta Garbo in The Divine Woman) and yet still tries to hide Francis’ presence. It doesn’t work though as Gypo sees more than he ought to and jumps to all of the wrong conclusions… He confronts Katie who out of spite tells him everything he doesn’t really want to hear.

Lars Hanson outside the studio Cinema (production still from the Townley Cook Collection)
It doesn’t take much to tip Gypo over the edge – remember what Lya did to Emil Jannings in Varieté?! – but here she makes double sure forcing him to make the rash decision to gain his revenge by telling the police where his former friend is hiding.  The scene is well constructed as the camera follows Hanson as he marches through Dublin streets towards a cinema just disgorging its audience, to the police station where he is rewarded with twenty pound notes (not pieces of silver…).

No good can come of this but it will not be the last telling betrayal in the film…

On the run. Photo from BFI
The police surround Francis’ mother’s house and he falls to his from the roof after a desperate struggle. Too late, Katie tells Gypo that she made it all up to hurt him… but the die is cast. The finger of suspicion is pointing firmly at Gypo now and it’s his own side he needs to worry about as the moral course of events becomes the focus of the film’s intense conclusion.

The Informer’s intimacies serve its broader narrative well and you are left trying to grasp the complexities of wider conflict when these fragile, passionate lives are lived so much based on truth and trust. Irish nationalism was more than just the context for this story and for understandable - 1929 English - reasons the film strips out the more overt references to the Free State and republicanism from Liam O'Flaherty’s novel.

In Britain then as now you need to smuggle out the meanings any way you can.

Arthur Robison was an American brought up in Germany and who directed the expressive (if not strictly expressionistic according to Lotte Eisner’s definition) Warning Shadows. Here he brings dark Germanic moods to the set-streets of Dublin aided by his camera men.

Lya De Putti and Carl Harbord (BFI)
The multi-national cast excel and there are noteworthy turns from the Brits too - chiefly Warwick Ward as Dan Gallagher as the rebels’ leader, Janice Adair as Bessie – a small but crucial part – as well as Johnny Butt as a disreputable publican. Daisy Campbell is also heart-breaking as Mrs McPhillip mourning a son killed by misunderstanding and jealous betrayal.

We all need to listen to each other and now as then to truly comprehend ourselves. Don’t just believe what you feel…

The Informer will be released on DVD/Blu-ray in February 2017. Details are on the BFIwebsite along with notes on the restoration of what Bryony Dixon has described as “one of the finest films produced in a British studio in the 1920s”. It is.

The band pre-performance

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