on 28 May 2017
This is a review of the BFI dual-format release of Arthur Robison's 1929 pair of film versions of "The Informer", for British International Pictures, inspired by the 1925 novel by Liam 0'Flaherty. One of these versions was completely silent, has only recently been restored by the BFI, was released for the very first time on DVD in mid-April 2017, running for just under 96 minutes at a speed of 20 fps., and is tinted with restraint throughout. The second version, originally released at the same time (1929), had a pre-recorded track of music and synchronised sound effects throughout, but with recorded dialogue introduced after the first 45 minutes, and with a total running time of just under 81 minutes at sound speed. Prior to the introduction of dialogue, the footage in the two versions is virtually identical, but some scenes differ considerably thereafter, each version with additional footage not in the other. The sound version was restored by the BFI in 2005, in black and white, and again this restoration has never been available on DVD before, although black-market and severely sub-standard copies of the unrestored original have been circulating for some time, and indeed it was from two of these that my original knowledge of and enthusiasm for the film arose.
The original novel was re-visited in the mid-1930s by John Ford, and his new film version, bearing the same title, and starring Victor McLaglen, who was highly praised for his performance at the time, less so now, was released in 1935, was nominated for Oscars, and became widely known, indeed, famous.This film retains its own merits, and indeed its own limitations, but it is a completely different film, and experience, from the versions by Robison reviewed here. I spell this out in detail because some customer comments below are confusing, so I emphasise here that any review mentioning Ford or McLaglen refers, not to Robison's original film, but to the American version shot some years later. Any reviews of the shorter sound version of Robison's film, unless posted after mid- April 2017, can only refer to "under-the-counter" versions, and not to what is a splendid restoration in gleaming and sharp black and white, with impressive textural detail of surfaces (brick walls for example) and faces (look at the lines on the desk-sergeant's face), and with, despite real shortcomings which I shall deal with later, a dialogue track which is much clearer than any previous versions I have seen/heard. (This film is on the discs as an extra, but alone is worth the purchase price) Any review of the silent version could not have been written before mid-April, because that version has never been available, as far as I am aware, for any form of home viewing, or for public viewing since its original release, and as I write, no reviews of it have yet appeared on Amazon.
O'Flaherty's original novel is set in the depressed streets of Dublin in the early 1920s, and tells the story of a penniless Gypo Nolan, who betrays a fellow member of "the organisation" (generally understood to be Sinn Féan), wanted for murder, to the authorities. The violent consequences of this act lead a guilt-ridden Gypo to slowly comprehend the moral implications of his motives and actions, to confront his own guilt and responsibility. Both O'Flaherty and Ford, who were distant relatives, were never loth to display their Feinnian hearts boldly on their sleeves, and Ford's film clearly places responsibility for the social, political and libertarian woes of Ireland at the time firmly at the feet of the occupying English army; indeed, even the opening titles concentrate on the shadowy figures of of armed Black and Tans patrolling the streets after curfew.
Given the widespread influence of the novel, and more particularly, of Ford's film, it is natural to approach Robison's original versions as another comment on and depiction of an occupied Ireland, hemmed in and denied natural freedom and prosperity by alien militaristic forces and government. It certainly seems to me to largely (but not entirely) be the approach taken by the BFI in their packaging of this release, for the extras on the discs include eight short newsreels from 1921/2 about the developing Irish situation, and very interesting they are, but their relevance seems questionable. I have the same reservations about the Irish emphasis, in instrumentation, rhythms and melodies, which are present in the music commissioned by the BFI for the silent version, for, to me Robison's films do not seem particularly concerned about, seem even scarcely aware of, the social and political issues in Ireland at the time.
Certainly, it is difficult to identify any Free-Ireland allegiances amongst the multi-national group of artists who have made this film: the four principals are; Lars Hanson, as Gypo, the Swedish actor best known in the U.K. for his performance as Gosta Bjorling; Lya de Putti as Kitty, the Hungarian actress most of whose work, including Dupont's recently released "Varieté", was in Germany; Warwick Ward as Gallagher, the commander of the group, an English actor now best known for his performance also in "Varieté" again as part of a triangular situation opposite de Putti; and Carl Harbord, a German actor who plays Francis McPhillip, the initial romantic interest of Kitty's, and the man on whom Gypo informs. The director of the film was born in America but spent most of his working life in Germany, and the remarkable cinematography is again by two Germans with several classic German films to their credit. Neither Ireland nor Dublin is mentioned by name in the film, and whilst to a British audience the Irish setting would be strongly implied by the proper names retained from the novel, and by a prominently displayed Parnell Hall, it seems doubtful that the international audience, for which the film was also targeted, would be alert to these. There is no indication of foreign occupation in the film - only civil authorities/police are portrayed - and politics is given only a single mention, in the opening title "Party Headquarters, where politics were often punctuated by gunfire". "Party" does get a second mention, when McPhillip, having shot dead the chief of police, is made an outcast "to save the party". (Late note:there are two further references to "party" in the silent version only: late in the film, after Kitty fails to distract Gallagher from his pursuit of Gypo, Gallagher rejects her with, "The punishment of an informer is a Party matter" - i.e. not something he as an individual can adjudicate. But Kitty's convincing retort implies that the Party means little to Gallagher - he is motivated by his own inner jealousies -for she says "Don't speak of the Party - you've always hated him because of our love". The look he gives her after this seems to affirm the remark.)
What the party is or represents is not revealed, and when the handful of members come under armed attack, including fire from a mounted machine-gun, it seems to be only from an equally vague rival "party", although that term seems increasingly to be a euphemism for "gang", especially given the amount of fire-power, including "grenades", concealed in the headquarters ready for immediate use.
The final reels of the sound version, which enable us to hear dialogue, some of it dubbed, also fail to provide any of the three remaining "Irish" principals with any attempt at an Irish accent, although it is the case that a couple of supporting actors have a vague attempt at a brogue. A specifically Irish location does not seem to have been at the forefront of anybody's mind!
In what is possibly the most interesting article in the enclosed booklet, Bryony Dixon argues for the film as an early example of what became known as "film noir", and it is certainly in this light, as noir incorporating expressionist influences, that the film works incredibly well. But, it is also the case that this undermines further the argument that it is a film about Ireland or Dublin (pure noir is concerned with the evil or corruption endemic in the concept of "city", not with any particular city or time) any more than "Othello" is a play about Cyprus or Venice. Both works are in fact about jealousy and the sense of rejection, and their violent consequences, arising from "misinformation" and false interpretation. And, I suppose, on humanity's capacity to heap damnation on its own head. (It is however worth admitting that whilst I believe the specifically Irish would be lost on a non-British audience, an international audience might well have recognised, in some of the earlier events, echoes of events in some European cities in the late 1920s, and indeed this might have attracted some considerable talents to this production.)
It may seem perverse to begin with a review of what is, on these discs, an extra (like all the extras, it does appear on both discs, not just the blu-ray), but the sound version is what I know best, the original source of my enthusiasm, and despite its glaring limitations, which I shall spell out below, provides a useful standard against which to judge the new silent restoration.
Robison's film radically expands and universalises the original novel, and this it does partly by changing the nature of Gypo, and the reasons and feelings behind his informing, and partly through a transformation in the role and function of Kitty, making her also an informer (apparently, then really) and, in the nature of her informing, a mirror image of Gypo. Informing is no longer, as in the original, the act of an individual in a particular socio-economic situation, but a more universal reaction to betrayal, in this film sexual betrayal, not so much real as perceived. One "betrayal" provokes another, and this is a film rich in betrayal, not just by people, but by objects as well: by money falling from a pocket; by a a smouldering cigarette; by a mirror; by an act of kindness; by Gypo's photo on Kitty's wall (silent version only); by spy-hole windows; by Gypo's ignoring of a street walker, attracted by the reward money he never wanted, whom he does not even see; even by trailing whisps of tobacco smoke betraying to us the lie Kitty tells during her interrogation (sound version only) by Gallagher. You might even take the view that McPhillip is betrayed twice by his party during the opening scenes of the film.
In this film, Gypo's act of betrayal initially arises from a false belief, based on what he has glimpsed, that Kitty has betrayed his love for her by secretly seeing her former lover, now on the run (Francis McPhillip) and lying about it. In anger, Gypo abuses her in words not given on title cards but the key words seem to be "stinking bitch", and she retaliates by falsely saying that she plans to run off with McPhillip the next day. Gypo storms off, but then, when she leaves, he sees her go straight to her "lover". She has betrayed him, and he now goes to the police essentially to betray the pair of them.
Hanson's Gypo is the very reverse of the morose, isolated, and rather simple creature of Ford and McLaglen: here he is almost a reincarnation of Gosta Bjorling - proud (initially he walks with a self-confident swagger); romantic (he is making eyes at Kitty as soon as the film begins, when she is still clearly involved with McPhillip); impulsive (almost possessed); capable of deep feeling, and later of self-tortured remorse. Lya de Putti gives a marvellously powerful yet restrained performance as Kitty, far removed from her usual extravagant and vampish reputation: examine for instance, her horrified realisation not only that Gypo has informed on Francis, but that it is her own actions, particularly her "threat" to leave with Francis, that has triggered this. Robison stages this scene in front of a store window, where a reflected male mannequin seems to mock her uncontrolled horror, and her world splits, recedes into refracted images of her distress which disappear into the plate glass. Or, look at the earlier moment when, having seemingly caught her out in her deception with Francis, Gypo rounds on her and her face braces itself for his inevitable angry assault. She does, it is true, have one scene where she forces herself to play the seductress (look at her face!) to Gallagher, in an desperate attempt to buy him off from his pursuit of Gypo; this scene differs considerably in the two versions (the shorter sound version is played largely with her back to camera, to facilitate dubbing), but in the silent version look at her reactions when, about to succumb to her, Gallagher sees Gypo's photo on the wall and realises what she is up to, and then shortly after when she realises her total failure. A further example of just how considerable de Putti's acting talent is occurs in a later scene when she finally realises that Gallagher's kindly-meant photograph taken from Gypo, and his comforting hand on her shoulder, have in fact deceived and betrayed her into informing on Gypo, and sealing his fate.
Robison's sound film is, for its first 45 minutes, an exciting experience, both dramatically and visually, sophisticated in its fluid editing, shot compositions, and structured design, sharply observed, and conjuring up a convincing world. The entire film is studio-based, but the set design is of a high order, with none of the fog-shrouded shots of Ford's version, but instead meticulously detailed sets which complement the story and, particularly, its themes. Take, for instance, the memorable forward-tracking shot as Gypo strides determinedly out of the alley towards the police station. It is not the overhead shot beginning at roof-level as described by Bryony Dixon in the booklet (and previously elsewhere - she possibly mixes this up with a pair of static shots of the same set later in the film); it begins with Gypo examining the remains of a wanted poster on the alley wall, then turning away, stepping off the pavement (sidewalk) and down into the street. He strides forward down a sloping alleyway, the camera following behind, looking down on him because, until he reaches the more open area where the incline ends, he is continually lower and descending: we see, almost experience, his downward descent, his movement propelled forward by the falling road beneath, and, oblivious of everyone else (as he is also a little later of the street-walker) he pushes his way through a crowd of exiting cinema-goers and erupts angrily into the police station, towards his damnation.
The opening gun-battle is a visceral experience, the noisy air thick with smoke, bullets and shattered debris flying everywhere, complemented by music which may be a little "heavy", but which powerfully supports the action, both overall, and in some detail; e.g. it gives us silence after the last fatal shot, and Gallagher's tentative descent of the stairs, before the shot's full implications are made clear by an ominous chord as we are told the corpse is the chief of police. Moments later, silence again, as the full realisation of what he has done hits McPhillip.
The film skilfully used structural devices to unify the action and prepare the way for subsequent events. Look particularly at how, as the film begins, a packet of cigarettes is used to indicate all we need to know about Gypo, Kitty, Francis, and about the burly party-member, Murphy, whose "theft" of a cigarette anticipates him later, crucially, helping himself to Gypo's incriminating photograph. (As an aside, I would observe that once the gun-battle begins, a stunned Murphy's lit cigarette, which he has been waving about, is hit by a bullet, and there follows, amidst the mayhem, a piece of action which seems unclear. Gypo seems to excitedly taunt Murphy, and offers him another cigarette. My own reading of this is that the lit cigarette has betrayed Murphy's presence to the gunmen, and an adrenalin-fuelled Gypo is encouraging Murphy to light up again to give the gunmen a second chance! The cigarette has betrayed Murphy's presence, informed upon him).
In his earlier German classic, "Warning Shadows", Robison had shown that he was more aware than most, not only of the deceptive nature of appearances, but of cinema as shadows on a screen, creating an illusion. The illusion he creates for the first 45 minutes of this film is complete - and then the illusion is well-nigh completely shattered. It is not that the final reels lack the powerful qualities that have gone before - they certainly do not - but the introduction of dialogue produces huge technical shortcomings in what has hitherto been a technically flawless fim, and places them inescapably at the forefront of the viewer's attention. From the first, dialogue seems ponderous and wooden, and the voices, with none of the Irish associations a British audience might expect, scarcely seem to belong to the speakers at all, nor to the world we have believed in. There is no doubt that it is this which has led to the movie being largely ignored since its initial release, stranded on a turning point in film history, and which, despite all of its real virtues, would cause the most enthusiastic of reviewers to turn his attention to the at long-last available silent version.
The stylistic, narrative, and thematic issues, together with the levels of acting performance, are similar, where not identical, in the two versions: the issues which do require comment are those of print quality and tinting, running speeds, and music and sound. Given the disappointment inherent in the final reels of the sound version, it might seem appealing when viewing, simply to switch to the silent alternative, but it has to be said that the musical change involved is at first disconcerting, and to my mind, there are at least three important dramatic moments where, despite the dialogue problems, the sound version is more satisfying.
To deal firstly and briefly with print quality: even in the sound version there are occasional visual blemishes, but momentary only, and otherwise, the visual quality is very good. The silent version has used material from several sources, and quality is slightly more variable. Often the silent picture seems softer, fractionally less well defined, and the tinting also serves as a surface "wash" which again ever so slightly "muffles" the visual image. Two examples to look at which I shall return to again are firstly, the beginning of Chapter 2 in both copies, where McPhillip examines the reward poster, tears it down, and exits pursued by a policeman until he shelters in Kitty's rooming- house. The second begins 58 minutes into the silent version, and 49 minutes into the sound version, where Gallagher waits, revolver at the ready, to "take" Gypo inside Kitty's room, and ends when Gallagher leaves her room. Close examination of the opening seconds of the first of the examples will, I think support the contention that the image is fractionally less well defined in the silent copy, and that the tinting seems to contribute to a "softer" image. The second example, where the footage is not identical, is whilst a tense Gallagher waits for sounds of Gypo behind the closed door. In the silent version the mottling and blotches of the early stages of decomposition are clear, but the sound version retains a strong image.
I have already indicated that the footage of the first half of each film is identical, yet they are here presented at substantially different running speeds, so the question arises, which seems correct? At sound speed, the film's action generally looks and, just as important, feels, about right. There are two points where the speed does seem unnatural, one where Gypo runs up a railway embankment, the other the motion in a dance-hall, but overall, the action of the film is given a forward momentum which is not only dramatically satisfying, but which makes us feel how rapidly events on Gypo's fateful night pile up on him. In contrast, the silent version seems at times slightly to drag, pauses seem a fraction too long, actions a little too considered, the film loses its pace. Looking at the first of my two examples, in sound McPhillip's flight from the policeman seems natural, and genuine; in silent, it seems jerky and less like a real attempt to flee. There is no "correct" projection speed", unless it is a variable speed, with a careful and sympathetic projectionist able to respond to the drama. This is probably how the silent version would have originally been screened, but mass DVD production seems unable to give us such finesse.
One remarkable feature of these films is the number of visual cues they give for aural events, as if they were designed for sound effects, or to cause an accompanying pianist to despair! Ignoring the two protracted gun battles, which involve much smashing of glass, woodwork, and masonry, there are three cues for extended background music (a gramophone playing, a dance-band which we briefly see in full swing, and a "money in the slot" pianola playing in a pub: each of these presents a challenge however, because in each of the three scenes, the dramatic mood darkens significantly, causing a problem: should one adapt the music to reflect the changing drama, or leave it unchanged to hopefully serve as a meaningful counterpoint.?). Then there is also a multitude of dramatic sounds and silences signalled - a window being smashed, a beer glass smashing into a playing gramophone, fists being banged on tables, a man being shot, footsteps stealthily ascending stairs and heard by Kitty who stops what she is doing, strains to hear, smiles, then as there is a knock on her door, looks puzzled, for it is not the lover she expected. Or, look at what was my second example earlier: a nervous Gallagher waits outside Kitty's door waiting to possibly kill the man inside; he jumps as wind and curtains send a vase of flowers crashing; then he strains to hear what is going on behind the door, and hears....nothing; then suddenly a cuckoo clock strikes, making him again jump (what adds to the problem is that in the silent version the actual cuckoo is at the very top of the frame, hardly visible, so some sort of sound is needed to explain the gunman's nervous response). Most of these are very precise sounds, and integral to the action, and of course, in the sound version almost all of these are convincingly placed, so much so that at times one forgets that this is still a "silent" movie. In the silent version as presented here, some attempt is made to replicate some of these sounds, at times successfully, as with the smashing of the gramophone, or the shooting of the police-chief, but too often, as for instance throughout both of the examples just described, the music just ignores the drama. Even the gunfights are scarcely powerful enough: the very first gunshot in the film is ignored by the soundtrack, even more significant, the very last is seriously understated, and for some of the many in between those two points, there is what sounds like an occasional rap of a drumstick, a half-hearted percussive effect, often with "unreported" gunshots on either side.
The score especially written for the silent version was, I felt effective in many of its "edgier" moments, giving a brief sense of suspense or of horrified understanding, but I did not feel that, overall, it worked well for me, and particularly because, in the three instances of extended music being cued which I refer to above, I felt in each case that heightened emotional events on screen were being ignored. I have always felt that any accompaniment to silent film should mirror the events and emotions on screen faithfully and instantly, guiding the understanding of the viewer. Musical responses to the three cues for extended music outside of any "soundtrack", from gramophone, pianola and dance band, mentioned above, could be analysed at length, but brevity at this point seems desireable. In short, the solution favoured in the sound version is clunky, brutal even, but after the clunk, effective. It is to have lively jazzy music which seems to come from the source shown on screen, but to terminate it abruptly to reflect the darkening mood on-screen, preferably on a suitable title-card or action and at the end of a musical phrase. Initially this is forceful, emphatic, but then the music rows back and responds directly to the emotional flow of the action, upon which the dramatic musical entry has helped focus our attention, telling us something important must be happening.
The musical decisions made at these three points in the silent version are more varied, more adventurous, but finally, I feel, less successful at guiding the viewer through the emotional complexity of the scenes, and at times even distracting the viewer's attention from it. In brief, the pianola sequence works well, the other two sequences assuredly not.