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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE INFORMER (1935)

Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) is a shadow of a man. The first shot of John Ford’s THE INFORMER (1935) has the shadow of the hulking Irishman crawling up a wall on a foggy Irish evening during the great rebellion. He is a shadow because he has been “court marshaled” by the IRA and is now homeless and without a job. When he comes across a “Wanted” poster for old IRA buddy Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), he angrily tears it off the wall. As Gypo makes his way down the darkened alley way, the poster carried by a gust of wind, wraps itself around his legs. He can’t break free. Eventually, it will be blown down the street, but we are haunted by the feeling that Gypo is about to do something he will regret (despite the merits of turning in a cold blooded killer). He meets his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame), on a corner of this same street. Poverty has forced her into prostitution. Everyone in the film is tormented by money – the lack of it and the desire to get some quickly. If she only had twenty-two pounds, she could, perhaps, escape to America with Gypo. It just so happens that twenty-two pounds is exactly the reward offered for Frankie’s arrest. We are now certain: Gypo will turn his friend and comrade over to the police.

But Gypo has a kind heart. He was thrown out of the IRA because he refused to kill a man marked for death by the Republicans. “Not in cold blood”, he explains to Frankie as they eat at a soup kitchen later in the film. He is just kind enough to help Katie find escape, but hungry enough to turn in an old friend.

Frankie is concerned about his mother, as are all Irish-Catholic boys. He has not seen her since he first went on the lam – and she must be so worried. Coppers and British soldiers are everywhere, having an oppressive effect on the occupied citizenry of Ireland. When Gypo approaches the police station, he raises his hands in the air. “No weapon here” he seems to be telling the constabulary, and this is a standard action taken by all Irishmen as they approach British soldiers and the police – most of whom are loyal to the Crown.

After betraying Frankie to the powers that be, Gypo sits by a loudly ticking clock in the police station, his head bowed. Ford’s low angle here emphasizes Gypo’s shame, and as this scene dissolves to Mrs. Mcphillip’s kitchen clock (also ticking loudly), the high angle seems to imply impending doom for Frankie. His time on earth is ticking away. Gypo leaves the police station by the back door, barbed wire visible in the foreground. Both men will soon be trapped. A blind man (D’Arcy Corrigan), who has been standing outside the police station, follows Gypo down the street – a symbol of his conscience and (as the filmmakers see it) his own moral blindness. Frankie sneaks into his Mother’s house by the kitchen entrance, and is joyfully greeted by his Mother (Una O’Connor) and his sister, Mary (Heather Angel). But that clock is still ticking.

Frankie is killed in the ensuing shootout as police surround Mrs. McPhillip’s home, and the sad disintegration of what remains of Gypo’s life begins. Alcohol facilitates this fall. Booze is prominent throughout and Gypo imbibes every chance he gets. When he meets Katie at an eatery, a bottle of whiskey separates them in the frame, dividing the screen in two. Strong drink will literally come between them. When Gypo is called to the hideout of Dan Gallagher (Preston Foster) the IRA head, and ordered to find the informer (and possibly be reinstated as a member in good standing) the men stand around a table set with bottles of alcohol and shot glasses. Gypo helps himself to the spirits and grows increasingly inebriated as the scene goes on. The broad comedy is accentuated when Gypo, given the ultimatum/offer, does what amounts to a “spit take” in amazement. Drunk out of his mind, he fingers a fellow named Mulligan (Donald Meek) as the informer, hatching an absurd story about Frankie impregnating Mulligan’s sister, creating the motive for betrayal. After Gypo leaves the hideout, one of Gallagher’s men reveals his suspicions that he is the informer.

Becoming more and more paranoid (and with good reason), Gypo spends his reward money on booze, on a handout for the blind man (who is still following him), on fish and chips for a crowd that dubs him “King Gypo” after he assaults a cop in his haze and – most movingly – on an English woman who needs money to get back to London. The last two episodes are especially ironic, considering the Irish hatred at the time for the Crown and all things English (fish and chips was a popular English meal at the time). The suspicious IRA men have been following him, watching – and counting the money as he spends it.

Soon Gypo and Mulligan find themselves dragged off to a Republican trial. Mary, who is in love with Gallagher, is the only woman attending. And he is there. The man who has “seen” so much – the blind man. Freaking out upon spotting the blind man, Gypo once again points to Mulligan who is exonerated by his faith in God:It seems he was at prayer in a chapel when Frankie was betrayed. And his only sister has lived in Boston for years. All of the money Gypo has spent is recalled by the men who followed him. It comes to twenty-two pounds. He breaks under the pressure and confesses. The men draw straws to decide on Gypo’s executioner. He escapes to Katie’s home, but not before taking a slug in the back. Katie goes to Gallagher and begs for him to call off the execution. There is none of the mercy showed by Gypo when he was called on to kill. Katie gives away Gypo’s location, and after another gun battle in which Gypo is grievously wounded, he escapes to the church. Staggering down the aisle, he falls before Mrs. McPhillip who is kneeling in prayer at the foot of a large crucifix. Gathering enough strength, he then kneels before Frankie’s Mother and the cross and begs forgiveness from her and – it appears – Christ. She does forgive him in an emotional exchange that marks the highlights of the careers of McLaglen (his performance garnered him an Oscar) and O’Connor. In his final moments, he has atoned for his sins by submitting to the two pillars of Irish-Catholic life – Motherhood and the church. Triumphant, he stands with his arms outstretched as if he were Christ on the cross. “Frankie, Your Mother forgives me!” This physical gesture and the fact that he addresses the cross as he says this implies that both Frankie and Gypo are Christ-like figures themselves, with all the suffering of the world on their shoulders. And now there is peace for both of them as Gypo falls dead before the crucifix.

If the film has a real flaw it is that this somber spiritual drama veers too often into broad comedy, creating an incongruous atmosphere. But THE INFORMER met the needs of depression era audiences – the need for an occassional laugh, and to observe the lives of people who were even worse off than themselves.

CREDITS: Produced and Directed by John Ford. Written by Dudley Nichols. Based on a story by Liam O’Flaherty. Photographed by Joseph H. August. Edited by George Hively. Music by Max Steiner. With: Victor McLaglen, Margot Grahame, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Wallace Ford, Una O’Connor, Donald Meek, D’Arcy Corrigan and Francis Ford.

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June 19, 2013 Posted by | "the troubles", 1930's cinema, classic cinema, film directors, film drama | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE SET-UP (1949)

When a filmmaker tries something different, it is often labeled a gimmick or a stunt.  So it was with Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) and its continuous ten minute takes.  This was especially the case with Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE (1947) and its extensive use of the subjective camera.  Whatever the merits of these innovations, it is obvious that an infusion of new ideas – a new way of looking at things – is important from time to time, in cinema and any artistic pursuit.

THE SET-UP (1949) is a thrilling boxing picture presented in real-time – the innovation of director Robert Wise and screenwriter Art Cohn.  The film is seventy-two minutes long and the on-screen action takes place over seventy-two minutes in the lives of the characters.  We know this because the first shot after the opening credits is of a street corner clock telling us it is five minutes after nine.  The final shot of the film is of the same clock reading seventeen minutes after ten.  But before we get to this point we are lured into this busy evening scene, with people filing in and out of a bar called “Dreamland” and a sports complex named “Paradise City Arena.”  We are immediately aware that these names will be featured prominently and ironically in the film and we soon find out that this is a street where dreams are often crushed and the smokey atmosphere of these establishments are more closely related to hell than to heaven. 

It is fight night in Paradise City and we are whisked into the arena and introduced to a series of fascinating characters: A blind man (Archie Leonard) who has the action of the fights relayed to him by a friend who accompanies him.  An obese man (Dwight Martin) shoveling every imaginable food into his gaping mouth, waiting for the next burst of violence like he anticipates each bite of hot dog.  Another, older man who listens to a radio broadcast of a baseball game while eating up the fight action.  He is obviously a chronic gambler with bets on both sports.  There are also many woman, including one supposedly squeamish lady who refers to the last fight she attended by saying “I kept my hands over my eyes the whole time!” 

Across the street, in a seedy hotel room, is Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) and his visiting girlfriend, Julie (Audrey Totter).  Stoker is a washed up fighter hoping for one big win so he can retire and open a cigar store or a beer joint.  Julie wants him to quit now.  But he has a fight scheduled for this evening.  He doesn’t know that his manager, Tiny (George Tobias) has agreed to have Stoker throw the fight in an unholy alliance with a local gangster, “Little Boy” (Alan Baxter).  Tiny, wishing to avoid upsetting Stoker, is not planning to reveal the scheme to him.  He is counting on the aging and inept hack to continue his losing ways naturally.  Big mistake…

Stoker’s dreams are always just out of his grasp – like the prizes in the claw game his trainer, Red (Percy Helton) seems obsessed with in the early scenes at an arcade.  He finds inspiration in the stories of other fighters, and then is horrified when they return from the ring pummeled and delirious.  Now he waits his turn and Julie has torn up her ticket.  He will go it alone.  A trainer named Gus (Wallace Ford) reads a “True Romance” type magazine called “Love” as he awaits the outcomes of the fights in the locker room.  We cannot help but think of Stoker’s situation.  Julie does indeed love him – and she hates boxing.  In the hotel, we discover that she avoids calling him by his boxing handle, and only refers to him as “Bill.”  To everyone else it is always “Stoker.” 

The fight world is presented as an atmosphere ripe with corruption, and it is not difficult to understand Tiny’s throwing the fight for money.  One trainer even cheats at solitaire!  When it comes time for Stoker’s match, the ring announcer’s words “Ladies and gentlemen” are met with boos from the crowd.  The fans are well aware that they are as corrupt as the game they celebrate. 

The scenes that follow are some of the most exciting in all of cinema.  They are also fascinating for their incisive depiction of the human comedy.  Stoker is not only battling his opponent “Tiger” Nelson (Hal Fieberling), but for the soul of everyone involved in this blood sport.  When Stoker’s eye is closed and bloodied, the blind man, hanging on every word of his companion and the announcer, screams out viciously “The other eye Nelson!  Close the other eye!”  As a blind man yearns for the blinding of another human being, the brutality becomes overwhelming. 

But Stoker fights back, causing Tiny to worry.  Between rounds, his manager begs Stoker to just “go the distance” and not to fight so passionately.  He feigns concern that his boxer may be injured.  As Stoker is implored to lay off, a barker can be heard in the background shouting “Get your cold beer here!”, reminding him and the audience of his dream.  He will fight on – with everything he has.  This is too much for Tiny who, during another break in the fighting, finally spills the beans to Stoker.  He comes out fighting harder than ever.  Proving everyone loves a winner, the blind man begins rooting for Stoker, who knocks out Nelson.  Tiny and Red beat it. 

Cornered in an alley by Little Boy and his goons, Stoker is pounded into unconsciousness and has his hand smashed.  This fight is a natural extension of what goes on in the ring.  There is a jazz club adjacent to the alley and as the thugs wail on Stoker, Wise cuts to shadows on the alley wall of a swing band wailing away.  Both beat downs are the music of the night in Paradise City.  Later, he wakes up and staggers into the street.  The “Dreamland” sign is partially obscured by buildings and is distorted in such a way that it appears to say “I Dream.”  Julie arrives in time to cradle Stoker in her arms.  He reveals the whole sordid tale and states proudly “I won.”  And he has – not just the match – but his freedom.  The broken hand means nothing as he was planning on retiring anyway.  “We both won tonight”, says Julie.  In a beautiful crane shot, the camera pulls back to reveal that clock, once again.  Seventy two minutes have passed for Stoker and Julie as well as the audience.  This brief running time and real-time approach to the film makes for a more immediate, moving and suspenseful experience.  It has been a memorable night at the fights, indeed, for all concerned. 
CREDITS: Produced by Richard Goldstone. Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Art Cohn. Based on the poem (that’s right, poem!) by Joseph Moncure March. Photographed by Milton Krasner. Edited by Roland Gross. Music by Roy Webb. With: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton, Wallace Ford, Hal Fieberling, Archie Leonard, Dwight Martin.              

   

May 15, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, boxing films, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment