on 10 August 2015
The Criterion issue on 2 discs -- DVD in my case -- is excellent, with a fine print of the movie on Disc One and some very interesting "special features" on the second disc. If you can, you might try to see it in relation to John Ford's "The Informer," also set in Ireland at a time (though a different one) of political trouble. Reed's 1947 movie owes a good bit stylistically and thematically to Ford's 1935 one. There are also debts to French and German movies of the 1930's that are addressed in the special features commentary. The basic similarity is that in both movies, the protagonist, not long out of jail, takes action that causes a death, and one could argue that, different as the circumstances are, in both cases the protagonist causes the death to meet some basic needs of his own and not for any ideological or political reason. The actions result in both men going on the run, so to speak, and trying to avoid capture, while at the same time being psychologically and maybe ethically disturbed by what they have done. Stylistic similarities are the representation of the city, especially in nocturnal images, with lots of shadows, deep back-and-white contrast, and a sense of the city as a kind of warren or maze, almost a trap, from which the protagonist tries to escape. Reed's film, to an even greater extent than Ford's, I think, makes the audience aware of its style -- every shot seems very deliberately framed, and engrossingly, I might add. However, to the credit of Reed and his actors, the awareness of style doesn't get in the way of the reader's engagements with the characters and their plights. Sometimes, it's desperation that draws us in; at others, it's an odd, almost absurd kind of humor. The ostensible issue that the plot engages us in, again like "The Informer," is a simple one -- can the protagonist get out of the city and away from his pursuers? But the plot, like that of any good film noir, is just the excuse on which to hang issues of psychological breakup and existential threat.
It's odd, however, that the political dimension of the story is played down. Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the head of what in the movie is referred to merely as "The Organization," and nothing in the movie makes it certain that the organization isn't a criminal enterprise as opposed to a political one. It has usually been taken to refer to the IRA, but there's nothing in the movie about Irish politics and history to warrant that identification. I wondered if the "depoliticizing" of the story was a sop to the British censors -- but there's no way that the organization, whatever it is, is glorified or its violence endorsed. In fact, Johnny, we learn right from the start, has begun while in prison to have doubts about violence -- it's ironic that he's strapping on his gun around the time that he reveals this to his girl, Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan). But he doesn't come across as a tough guy -- he's reflective and even sentimental, and that's partly his undoing, and Kathleen's attraction to him has none of the dangerous allure of the bad boy for the tough girl. Be all that as it may, the absence of politics throws all the interest on the existential aspects of the story and serves to suggest that Johnny's situation has a kind of universal human interest. His conscience is focused on his having killed, with no attention given to the context of or possible reasons for the killing or the robbery that was the occasion of the killing. The effect is to make Johnny's consciousness seem almost inhumanly "pure" -- or, if you're historically minded, implausibly limited. For myself, that's where I have to suspend my disbelief where this movie is concerned. Once you start thinking about the complex history that lies behind an event like the robbery in the context ( a divided Ireland, c. 1940), the film can lose its purchase on you and seem oversimple. If you head down that road, all you're left with is style. But partly as a response to style, I DON'T head down that road, and then my interest in what the style is there to express reawakens.
The oddest feature of the movie is the part where Johnny finds himself in the studio of the artist Lukie (Robert Newton), who wants to paint him. Lukie is such an extravagant character, and Newton (remember his Long John Silver?) is himself an extravagant actor, that he almost seems to belong to a different kind of movie. Still, the idea of the artist as the medium required for penetrating the soul of man in extremis has thematic plausibility here, and it's in that scene that Mason delivers HIS most histrionic moment -- a surprise in a movie in which the protagonist, up to that point, hasn't had much to say at all. And that's another odd feature of the film -- Johnny, once he is wounded, is remarkably passive. It's not clear that he cares about being saved, though he doesn't want to be found by the police. Rather, he just seems not to want to be a burden to anybody. Is he paralyzed by guilt? He is weak through loss of blood? Both, perhaps? Kathleen wants to save him and is scouring Belfast looking for him, but it's not clear that he wants any more than Kathleen's presence -- and at the end of the day (literally -- the movie is about the events of a single day and ends at midnight), it's not clear that Kathleen wants any more than just to be in Johnny's presence. The ineffectiveness of Father Tom (W. G. Fay) gives the ending a very different character from the ending of "The Informer," where Gyppo (Victor McGlaglen) ends up in a church asking for forgiveness. And yet Frankie's mother's absolution of Gyppo ("Sure, you didn't know what you were doin' ") perhaps applies to Johnny too.
Anyway -- if you've read this far! -- good performances all round, not only from Mason but from a stable pf good Irish actors including the young Cyril Cusack, Dan O' Herlihy, and W. G. Fay himself. This was Fay's last movie, for he died in 1947, having been involved forty years earlier with Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory in the establishment of the Irish National Theater (later, the Abbey). Take a look too at the proprietor of the bar. I thought I recognized him from long ago. I wondered, was it Peter Cushing? But no. He's William Hartnett, who went on to become the original Doctor Who.