To BFI Southbank for the London Film Festival’s Archive Gala screening of The Informer. Produced in 1929 during the transitional period when the industry was changing from silent film to sound, this intense tale of love, friendship and betrayal was made both with crude dialogue and – with subtly different shots – without. But as BFI curator Bryony Dixon demonstrated with extracts beforehand, the sound recording at the time was crude and the accents of a European cast uncertain. Nor, as this triumphant screening with a newly commissioned score demonstrated, does the film really require speech. A few inter-titles help the story along but The Informer is supremely and gorgeously visual – as well as being a rattling good yarn.
Adapted from a celebrated novel by Liam O’Flaherty, published in 1925, the film focuses on a group of Irish revolutionaries in the immediate aftermath of the founding of the Irish Free State. They would appear to be Republicans but the film makes nothing of their politics – this is an existential drama of responsibility, conscience and, ultimately, grace.
Francis kills the chief of police in a shoot-out and flees to the hills. The gang raise money for him to escape to America but against all advice he returns to the city on his final night to see both his beloved Katie and his mother. Meanwhile Katie has taken up with Francis’ best friend Gypo, whose jealousy is roused when he believes Katie is going away with Francis. Gypo informs on Francis, setting in train a sequence of tragic events, in which Katie too becomes an informer.
O’Flaherty’s plotting is constantly surprising, even as Gypo’s ultimate fate is never in doubt. Almost all of the action takes place over a single night and within a tightly defined group of streets and settings. There’s a beautifully patterned scheme of encounters and exchanges, with a returning trope of messages being written and missed and misunderstood. And the dramatic pacing, at least when accompanied with a driving score, seems almost perfect, not least in the transcendent moments of a fervent climax.
Although made by British International Pictures and shot at Elstree, The Informer – like many features from the time – is very much a European film, with Swedish actor Lars Hanson as Gypo and Hungarian leading lady Lya de Putti as Katie. Director Arthur Robison (best known for Warning Shadows, 1923) was German, as were the cinematographers Werner Brandes and Theodor Sparkuhl, and the film’s clear and coherent style is profoundly influenced by Weimar expressionism. So too are the passionate, glowering performances, which never topple into absurdity. The notion that the best British cinema is defined by a quality of restraint is exploded by the drama here.
Nor for one moment are we in a naturalistic world. A useful BFI background feature suggests that J. Elder Wills‘ design is ‘good enough [to] make you believe you are in 1920s Dublin’. Not as far as I was concerned. What I inhabited with the film was a consciously stylised, theatrical world in which the forces of fate determined events much as they might have in a Greek amphitheatre.
The BFI National Archive’s new print, magically conjured into being by the Institute’s restorers and a team at Deluxe, positively glowed on the NFT1 screen last night, and it was all the more beautiful because of an ever-so-subtle purple tint throughout. And I loved Garth Knox’s score, performed at full tilt by a band of six lead by the composer himself on violin. The use of uilleann pipes and accordion was particularly effective, but the musicians contributed some very smart sound effects as well, especially in a crucial sequence accompanied by a gramophone record. The crackling acetate was suggested by percussion, the rhythm slowed as the turntable’s motor ran down, and then as a bottle was thrown to silence it, there was a perfectly synchronised crash.
Such was the warmth of the response last night, I have no doubt the BFI will arrange further screenings, and a DVD is promised for early in 2017.