Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Irish questions… The Informer (1929) on Blu-ray/DVD

Last year’s London Film Festival archive gala restoration is now available on sparkling BFI Blu-ray, all the better to show the dark heart of this republican mood piece filmed almost entirely on-set in Elstree. The Informer is set in the context of the fight for Irish independence but it’s mostly about loyalty, love and betrayal: country, friends and lovers, all can be let down in the heat of the moment.

It’s remarkable that an English film of this time – based on Liam O'Flaherty’s 1925 novel - would tell a sympathetic story of republicans so soon after the fact of the uprising and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the politics may be side-lined but there’s no doubt who these people are and why loyalty matters so much. In her introduction, the BFI’s Bryony Dixon quotes O'Flaherty later writing that he based his story on the style of the cinema and that he wanted to treat his readers “…as a mob orator treats his audience and toy with their emotions…” – there’s a proto-noir feel to a film that is infused with uncertainty and a sense of dread.

Lars Hanson
It’s easy enough to identify with selfless comradeship and the loyalty of lovers but it’s harder to recognise the spiteful urges that drive us all towards betrayal. After that, all that is left is understanding and forgiveness and that is so rare.

As with a number of the best British silent films, The Informer featured European talent, including its German director (Arthur Robison, of Warning Shadows fame) and his cinematographers Werner Brandes and Theodor Sparkuhl, who combine to create such a superbly oppressive world of on-set shadows – as if the darkness was pushing down on the fragile hearts of the cast. There’s plenty of image mobility, especially impressive when the camera moves from where Francis hides as Gypo turns from his mate’s house and walks down an alley across a perfectly-synchronized crowded street to the police station to do the dreaded dirty on his pal…

Lya De Putti and Carl Harbord
Hungarian Lya De Putti (last seen swinging with Emil Jannings in Varieté) is Katie, the woman stirring such strong emotions between best pals Gypo Nolan, played by Sweden’s finest, Lars Hanson and Francis McPhilip played by Carl Harbord of Salcombe, Devon.

The cast is a very strong one bulked out by some great character actors like Warwick Ward as Dan Gallagher commander of the group, Dennis Wyndham as his right-hand man and the mobile mug of Craighall Sherry as his left, Mulholland. Ward was interesting casting, looking so much like the British heroic ideal – hawk-like features and resolute moustache: a man of decision.

Dan Gallagher, Warwick Ward, Craighall Sherry, Lya De Putti, Carl Harbord and Lars Hanson
Daisy Campbell is also very fine as Mrs McPhillip, the woman who loses a son and yet has the faith and heart to bring redemption whilst Johnny Butt is nasty enough as the pimping Publican aiming to make Janice Adair lost-lass Bessie earn her keep no matter what. There’s even a sharpshooter played by young Ray Milland who looks like he might be one to watch in the future.

But it’s all about the magnificent leads… Katie loving Francis then Gypo, Gypo loving Francis but mainly Katie and Gallagher loving his cause above all also.

The film begins with a fire fight as two groups of unknown allegiance battle each other in the streets of Dublin before the Police move in… One of the group, Francis, accidentally shoots the chief of police and must go on the run. He can’t stick it though and returns in secret to the house of Katie Fox his ex-sweetheart only to find that she has moved onto the slightly more dashing Gypo 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 the wrong conclusions…

Lars and Lya
It doesn’t take much to tip Gypo over the edge – remember what Lya did to Herr 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…

Garth Knox - compositional coffee
I’d enjoyed Garth Knox’s new score live and there’s an extra on the disc in which he details the creation of his score aimed at “shaping the silence”. It’s interesting that he tries to put back some of the rougher edges of the characters taken out for the film but very much present in O’Flaherty’s book. He used uilleann pipes and accordion to re-patriate the story in Irish tones and purposely used a small ensemble to recreate the close-quarters dramatics on screen. He goes on to say in the notes that “the idea was to rub the organic grain of the folk sound into the more polished perfection of the… more classical instruments (flute, viola) …” this also contrasts Gypo’s hot blood with Gallagher’s coldness.

Knox takes a strong lead from the actors and I liked his attention to detail when, for instance, Gypo loses sense of his surroundings under stress and the score follows him into detached reverie. It is an emotionally-intelligent and stirring score which largely works in tune albeit occasionally foreshadowing the tumult of the performances and the narrative flow.

Warwick Ward and Lya De Putti before and after restoration
The BFI team having done a superb job on a mix of source materials for this restoration and amongst the extras there’s a comparison showing before and after… well, there is no comparison really. The sound version is also included and was restored ten years ago but just seems lumpen when compared to the fleeting, shadowy nuance of the silent. Again the extras show a comparison; silents were just so much more dramatic at this stage.

There are also a number of Topical Budget newsreels from the period which show the events outside the picture houses... they are terse reminders of tensions that persist to this day.

The Informer is released on DVD/Blu-ray on 24th April and you can order it direct from the BFI shop online

De Valera - I Want Peace (1921)
De Valera's message - I Want Peace (1921)
Protesters outside the Unionist Conference in Liverpool 1921

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