The Informer truly put the “international” into British International Pictures. This film, shot entirely in the Elstree studios in 1929, was adapted from an Irish novel, directed by a German, and starred a Swedish man and a Hungarian woman. As far as in-front-of-the-camera talent goes, this is exactly the kind of international collaboration that would perish with the coming of sound. Behind the scenes, British studios would only welcome in more European personnel through the 1930s, though sadly for the worst of reasons.
So The Informer is a movie on the cusp – geographically and historically. It’s fitting then that it was filmed in both silent and sound versions. The BFI restored the talkie Informer a while back, but in 2016, the silent version got the full makeover treatment, and was presented as the London Film Festival Archive Gala with a new score by Garth Knox.
And thank goodness it did, because, whether you have seen the stilted and shaky sound version or not, the silent Informer is a breath of fresh air. This is a truly accomplished late silent drama, with a graceful moving camera and fine performances, and all that emotion is heightened by slinky black shadows and high-angled shots that recall director Arthur Robison’s achievements in German Expressionism (you may have seen Warning Shadows, 1923). The story may be set in early 1920s Dublin, but this vampiric treatment suits it perfectly. Liam O’Flaherty pictured his moody thriller being made into a German film when it was still words on a page.
In this taut, cat-and-mouse thriller, Lars Hanson plays Gypo Nolan, one of a disintegrating band of Irish revolutionaries, who tips off the police to the whereabouts of his exiled comrade, Francis, played by Carl Harbord. Famed vamp star Lya de Putti plays the woman they both love. The story plays out in the mean streets of Dublin – there’s a claustrophobic sense of place as we feel that the characters are trapped in the city streets by their ideals as much as by their betrayals. But this city could also be any city where the people and the police are at odds. It could be Weimar Berlin, for example. And it’s uncannily like the crime-infested LA of 1940s film noir. Those shadows get everywhere.
The restoration here is something to coo over – with fine detail in the faces of our pulchritudinous leading trio and those grotty urban landscapes both, and soft tinting to enhance the mood. More good news arrives with Garth Knox’s sensitive, Irish-inflected score. He seems to have absorbed the delicacy of the film’s style rather than the crudeness of its subject matter, and his music is melodic and nicely supportive of this twisting-turning thriller.
You know all this already, of course, if you saw The Informer at the London Film Festival last year. Now, however, the BFI has released it on a classy dual-format DVD/Blu-ray edition for you to take home. Which is very pleasing.
The film itself continues to ooze charisma on disc, especially on the Blu-ray transfer, and there is a substantial selection of extra material here too. A booklet with essays by Bryony Dixon, Michael Brooke and Knox, a restoration demo, a 10-minute featurette with Knox discussing his score and a raft of silent newsreels documenting the fight for Irish independence from 1921 and 1922. Oh yes, and the sound version of The Informer. Rather nice to have the sound version included as an extra on a silent disc, rather than the other way around, eh?
Take this as a hot tip from me, The Informer is a disc to add to your wishlist.
- The Informer is out now, RRP £19.99. You can order a copy for £14.99 at the BFI shop here or on Amazon here.
- The Informer is showing at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June 2017, A long way to travel? Yes. But I have written an essay about the film for the festival catalogue so you can look forward to that appearing online in due course.