The Informer

Directed by Arthur Robison, UK, 1929

Cast Lya de Putti, Lars Hanson, Warwick Ward, and Carl Harbord Production British International Pictures Print Source BFI National Archive

Presented at SFSFF 2017
Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne, Guenter Buchwald, and Frank Bockius
Essay by Pamela Hutchinson

“This wasn’t Irish stew—it was bouillabaisse mixed with ghoulash.” Many decades after the release of Dublin-set thriller The Informer, a member of the stunt team reflected on the multicultural makeup of this ostensibly British-made film. “Here they were, making a purely Irish story with a German director; the leading man was a Swede named Lars Hanson; the leading lady was a Hungarian named Lya de Putti; the whore was being played by a French girl who was born in Mexico City, named Mona Goya; and the informer was played by an Anglo-Dutchman named Carl Harbord.” The stunt shooter describing this casserole (and mixing up Harbord and Hanson) was a Welshman: future Oscar-winning actor Ray Milland, fresh out of the army and starting his movie career behind the scenes, shattering glass windows with blank machine-gun fire. The clash of languages, and accents, on set must have been truly cacophonous. The partially dubbed sound version of the film attempted to replace that multilingual mayhem with the King’s English, but in the superior silent version those European influences shine.
Although it was filmed at London’s Elstree studio by British International Pictures, The Informer was long intended to become a German film. The movie was based on a hugely popular novel by Irish author Liam O’Flaherty, a gritty thriller about a band of revolutionaries in Dublin. When Gypo (Hanson), a grim, desperate member of the group, informs on a comrade, Francis (Harbord), he stalks the streets in guilt and shame, hoping his fellows won’t discover his crime. It’s a fast-paced and dramatic book, with an unforgettable lead character. As O’Flaherty wrote in his memoir Shame the Devil: “I would treat my readers as a mob orator treats his audience and toy with their emotions, making them finally pity a character whom they began by considering a monster.” The novel was to be, in his words: “[a] high-brow detective story and its style based on the technique of the cinema. It should have all the appearance of a realistic novel and yet the material should have hardly any connection with real life.” The cinematic technique O’Flaherty had in mind was German Expressionism’s ability to project psychological terror into dark shadows. “It would make a good German film,” he wrote to a friend while writing the book, “but would be, I fancy, too rough for presentation to a public that protested against steer-roping at Wembley.” That’s a reference to the first international rodeo event held at the stadium in North London, which was closed down by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Clearly O’Flaherty felt British audiences were too delicate for his Gypo.
And so The Informer, while it was shot in Britain, had a German director: Arthur Robison, who had done so much to reveal guilt in darkness with his Expressionist classic Warning Shadows (Schatten, 1922). The scheme to make Gypo a monster on-screen, or at least to have the cast of one, is clear in the shooting script. Part four begins: “Katie is asleep in her bedroom when, Nosferatu-like, a figure climbs in her window. It is Gypo.” The crucifix shadow that pins Gypo to the ground in the closing frames is sketched out here, too. Robison’s use of fluid camerawork and revelatory shadows (as when marked man Francis casts a cloud over his own Wanted poster) marks The Informer as what the scholar Patrick F. Sheeran called “a late outrider of Weimar expressionism foundering in the ‘porridge factory’ of Elstree.” That contemporary term for the studio was not as derogatory as it sounds, merely a reference to the sheer number of films Elstree was producing, rather than their quality. In fact, while Robison was shooting The Informer, elsewhere on the site Alfred Hitchcock was making Blackmail, another great of late-period British silent cinema.
The Informer’s stars summoned up an atmosphere of violent passion and romantic doom for any 1920s audience. Hungarian vamp Lya de Putti (as Katie, Gypo and Francis’s girl) and Englishman Warwick Ward (as Party commandant Dan Gallagher) had costarred in E.A. Dupont’s Variété (1925) and Swedish Hanson was known for high-strung Hollywood fare such as Flesh and the Devil (1927) and The Wind (1928). For many actors, the silent era was their last chance to collaborate internationally. Poignantly, despite the grotesque rendering of her Hungarian accent, De Putti told the British magazine Picturegoer: “Zat is why most of the continental artists are coming here. Zey make one or two pictures in Europe while zey wait and see how ze talkie craze lasts.”
The film was just as international as its cast. O’Flaherty disingenuously claimed that the events of his novel, which was written mostly on an English beach, were not lifted from the fight for Irish independence, but “from happenings in a Saxon town, during the sporadic Communist insurrection of about nineteen twenty-two or three.” That’s probably a little white lie, to cover his own involvement in the struggle, but Robison’s film, while recreating certain Dublin locations, scales back on the Irishness of the book, and contains no discussion of politics. We could be in, say, late 1920s Germany, with universal police surveillance, the prostitute Katie remodeled as a Weimar New Woman, and Gypo driven by poverty to a desperate act.
In fact, it’s not just Expressionism that colors The Informer’s style: its broke and brutalized characters and gritty urban mise-en-scène recall German street films, such as those by G.W. Pabst and Gerhard Lamprecht. This, too, comes straight from the pages of the novel. For hard-bitten Gypo, the backstreets are full of danger: “he feared the darkness, the lurking shadows, the suggestion of men hiding in alleyways to attack.” The narrator takes a wider, more sociological view of the Dublin slums, where poverty and municipal neglect force angels and devils to live cheek-by-jowl: “the brothels, the Bogey Hole, tenement houses, churches, pawnshops, public-houses, ruins, filth, crime, beautiful women, resplendent idealism in damp cellars, saints starving in garrets, the most lurid examples of debauchery and vice, all living thigh to thigh, breast to breast, in that foetid morass on the north bank of the Liffey.”
Robison’s film is far more sanitary than O’Flaherty’s novel, casting out the less savory aspects of Gypo and Katie’s characters along with the politics. What remains is only the “high-brow detective story” disconnected from real life. The first third of the film concerns Francis’s exile from the Party and his dramatic demise on his return to Dublin (whereas in the book a brief hundred-word chapter covers his death). The second third of the film covers Gypo’s attempt to evade discovery by his former comrades and the last act is a cat-and-mouse game between Gypo and Gallagher.
As Bryony Dixon wrote in the November 2016 issue of Sight and Sound, The Informer, more than most Expressionist titles, plays out like a true forerunner of film noir, the Hollywood genre that owes so much to émigré European artists working far from home. This European brew even seemed American at the time—at least to the censors in the Irish Free State, who banned the film on the grounds that it was so very far removed from Dublin’s fair city: “The sordid show of Chicago gunmen, armed police, and prostitutes are shown at gunplay and soliciting in the standard slum of movieland … It is a pity that the citizens cannot take actions against the producers for a libel against our City.” Rooted neither in Dublin, Berlin, London, or even Chicago, The Informer becomes a universal story of good and evil, fear and dread, with Gypo himself falling somewhere between a sympathetic Expressionist monster, and the luckless tough-guy hero of classic noir.