Monday, March 14, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE INFORMER” by Liam O’Flaherty (first published in 1925)
When we reach the week that contains Saint Patrick’s Day, I always like to include a nod to Irish literature on this blog, which is why in the last four-plus years I have dealt with James Joyce’s Ulysses, Darran McCann’s After the Lockout, Liam O’Flaherty’s The Black Soul, and Terence de Vere White’s The Distanceand the Dark. I’ve also enjoyed forays into Irishry in such think-pieces as Me and James Joyce in that Order and Seamus Heaney 1939-2013 R I P and The Wearing of the Green and so Forth and Yeats the Art of Being a Fool. In the same spirit, this week I plunge into one work, which has provided an enduring image of Irishness, even if the image is as much the result of a Hollywood adaptation as of the original novel.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
One Friday night when I was a teenager, I watched on (single-channel, black-and-white) television a film, which I ended up loving. It was John Ford’s 1935 version of The Informer, and it didn’t matter that television was black-and-white, because so was the film.
It was clearly set in Dublin in the ‘Tan War – that is, the Irish War of Independence - in 1921. It concerned a big, very stupid, but basically likeable Irish mug called Gypo Nolan (played by Victor McLaglen) who is desperate for money because he wants to escape to America with his girlfriend Katie. Although Katie is clearly a prostitute (or at least as clearly as a film made in Hollywood in 1935 could imply), she is also basically a good girl. Anyway, Gypo’s old mate from the I.R.A., Frankie McPhillip, is wanted by the Black-and-Tans, and there are posters up offering 20 pounds reward for Frankie’s capture. And in his stupidity, and in his desperation to escape poverty, Gypo goes and informs on Frankie. The Black-and-Tans corner Frankie and kill him, and Gypo gets his 20 pounds blood money.
Flush with money, but also wracked by a primitive sort of conscience about what he has done, Gypo then proceeds to pass the rest of this Dublin night spending recklessly. He is mortally afraid that his treachery will be discovered, and the I.R.A. will come after him. But he leaves such an obvious trail of incriminating evidence that it is hard for anyone not to notice. He goes to the wake for Frankie being held at the McPhillips’ house and joins in the mourning, but his jittery behaviour, when there is talk about an informer, makes some people suspicious. He buys expensive whisky, which an impoverished slum dweller like him couldn’t easily afford. He treats a raucous crowd of hangers-on to a meal of fish-and-chips at a fish-fry. In a night-time establishment where people are partying (as clearly a brothel as a film made in Hollywood in 1935 could imply), he takes pity on this Cockney woman whom the rough Oirishry are ridiculing, and he gives her the money she needs to get back home to London. So it continues until the I.R.A. men are more than suspicious.
Gypo is haled before a secret, night-time I.R.A. court of enquiry. Gypo has at first told the I.R.A. commandant Dan Gallagher a story incriminating another man as the informer. But his lie is soon exposed and he is condemned to death by the court. No insurrectionist organization can live if it allows informers to go free. Gypo manages to escape, but he is mortally wounded by gunshots fired by his former comrades. It is now the early morning hours of a very long night. Early mass is being said. Bleeding to death, Gypo manages to stumble into a chapel where Frankie McPhillips’ mother is praying.
“Mrs McPhillip, ‘twas I who informed on Frankie,” says Gypo.
“Sure Gypo, I forgive you”, says Mrs McPhillip, “You didn’t know what you were doing.”
Exalted, redeemed, with his guilt suddenly lifted from him by the mother’s forgiveness, Gypo turns to face the crucifix, spreads his arms wide like one being crucified, and shouts “Frankie! Frankie! Your mother forgives me!” Then he falls down dead.
When I first saw the film, I almost bawled at this point.
Please do not snicker and please do cut me a little slack.
I was fifteen.
The death of Gypo Nolan was like the death of King Kong (in the original version), where you suddenly feel sorry for this dumb brute, destroyed by forces he doesn’t understand. Mrs McPhillip’s “you didn’t understand what you were doing” is the film’s judgment on Gypo. He did wrong, he caused another man’s death, but he wasn’t in control of himself. The great hulking fool was a tragic, pitiable victim.
Because I lived in a house filled with books of film history and film criticism, I at once looked up references to John Ford’s film (this was three decades before the internet, folks) and I discovered that the 1935 version of The Informer was widely regarded as a great film. It won four of the top Academy Awards for its year – Best Director (Ford), Best Actor (McLaglen), Best Screenplay (Dudley Nichols) and Best Score (Max Steiner). There were respectful analyses of it on my father’s shelves. Roger Manvell in his Film and the Public regarded it as one of the few true tragedies to be created by cinema.
About thirty years later, when video-recorders were still regarded as the latest technology, the film again appeared on television. This time I recorded it and was able to watch it two or three times. Time had moved on. I was well-read enough in cinema to know that younger, hipper critics (like Lindsay Anderson) now dismissed the film as pretentious, self-consciously arty and patronising. I was now a bit more uneasily aware of the film’s defects. There were, for example, the plainly non-Irish accents of some of the Hollywood players (the worst being Preston Foster in the role of the I.R.A. chief Dan Gallagher). There were so many fog-haunted night-time settings, reminiscent of German films in the 1920s, and the film’s very studio-bound nature. There was the plain sentimentality of much of it (Margot Grahame’s whore-with-a-heart-of-gold Katie). And I was now more aware of the genre to which it belonged. Lachrymose male melodrama of the sort that had victimised Jean Gabin running to his doom in movies like Pepe Le Moko, Quai des Brumes, Le Jour Se Leve etc. and that later had laconic tough guys being ruined pitiably in 1940s American films noirs. And yet Victor MaLaglen’s dumb lug performance was still appealing. And one of the phrases his Gypo uses, when he visits the wake for Frankie McPhillip, became for us a household catch-phrase whenever one of us wished to express sympathy for another who was feeling down in the dumps: “I’m sorry for your troubles, Mrs McPhillip”.
All in all, and making many allowances for its antiquity, I still thought it was a pretty good film.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Now, dear reader of this blog, you will see that I have reversed my usual procedure when I deal with a book that has been made into a film. Usually I go on at great length about the book before dealing more cursorily with the film version. This time I begin with the film. But there is a reason for this. Gypo Nolan and his travails in Dublin were already firmly printed in my brain long before I encountered and read the Liam O’Flaherty novel. Oddly enough, I had read other novels by O’Flaherty (1896-1984) – The Black Soul, The Puritan, Famine – before I got around to this one. I think I held off because some part of my mind didn’t want to sully the images created by the film.
Anyway, I at last took The Informer off the shelf and gave it a go. And I found a novel both like, and unlike, the film.
The general arc of the story is very much the same. Irish lunk betrays pal, is paid blood money, spends a night of remorseful wandering through Dublin, and is eventually gunned down by his former comrades. Gypo does indeed get to say “I’m sorry for yer trouble, Mrs McPhillip” at the family wake. (Chapter 4) There is indeed a scene where, in drunken largesse, Gypo Nolan pays for a whole crowd to feed on fish-and-chips and another in which he takes pity on an abused Englishwoman and gives her the money to go home. There is indeed a “court of enquiry” in which Gypo’s inculpation of another man is exposed as a lie. Gypo does indeed use his sheer dumb-ox physical strength to escape from his accusers. And the final scene, of Mrs McPhillip’s forgiveness in a church, is almost exactly as John Ford’s film depicts it. The novel’s closing religious image is quite explicit, with Gypo’s death conveyed in the novel’s two last sentences thus: “He stretched out his limbs in the shape of a cross. He shivered and lay still.”
But the whole tone and mood of the novel are so different from the Hollywood film that it reflects a different sensibility and inhabits quite a different universe. Liam O’Flaherty writes in an overwrought, epithet-laden style, lashing out in all directions and verging on the hysterical. His style reminds me of the adjective-filled abuse of Richard Aldington’s contemporaneous Death of a Hero. Maybe it was the fault of the strain and mental stress of the First World War, which both Aldington and O’Flaherty sustained as soldiers on the Western Front. Both writers suffered nervous breakdowns as a result of their war experience. O’Flaherty condemns and despises and orates over nearly everything he sees.
What is most obvious is the novel’s concentration on what is sordid, mean and ignoble. His Dublin is a dirty and unforgiving place filled with pitiable – and probably irredeemable - wretches. The tone is set in the novel’s very opening paragraph where two slovenly homeless men are being kicked out of a doss house, and we are introduced to “an indefinable smell of human beings living in a congested area.” (Chapter 1) When Gypo is on the run in the novel’s closing chapters:
“It was the slum district which he knew so well, the district that enclosed Titt Street, 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 fetid morass on the north bank of the Liffey.” (Chapter 16)
The “idealism” and the “saints” are overwhelmed by the “fetid morass” in O’Flaherty’s vision. There are no noble working people here – no patriots with unmixed and unselfish motives – and we are almost exclusively in the company of what Marxists, with their lordly contempt for the unorganised working classes, would call the Lumpenproletariat. In the fish-and-chips scene, the bludgers who exploit Gypo’s drunken generosity are not the kind of carousing stage-Irish comic chorus they are in the movie. They are a bestial rabble (shades of James Joyce’s “day of the rabblement”!). The episode with the Englishwoman is indeed set in a brothel dramatizing “lurid examples of debauchery and vice” as drunken clients strip off their clothes and whores batten on Gypo for his money. (Chapter 8)
And the Gypo of the novel is significantly different from the Gypo of the film. O’Flaherty has the old-fashioned habit of giving a full, detailed physical description of each major character when he or she is first introduced. On Gypo Nolan’s first appearance, we are told that he had a “close-cropped bullet-shaped head… eyebrows… like ominous snouts, and they had more expression than the dim little blue eyes that were hidden away behind their scowling shadows. The face was bronzed and red and it was covered with swellings that looked like humps at a distance…. The nose was short and bulbous. The mouth was large. The lips were thick and they fitted together in such a manner that the mouth gave the face an expression of being perpetually asleep. His body was immense, with massive limbs and bulging muscles pushing out here and there, like excrescences of the earth breaking the expected regularity of the country-side.” (Chapter 1) This is indeed the big, dumb brute, and the novel takes every opportunity to compare Gypo with a wild animal or with some monster out of mythology. When he is first being questioned by Dan Gallagher, Gypo “followed all Gallagher’s movements with the stupid and suspicious wonder of a terrified wild animal that thinks some trick is being played on it.” (Chapter 7) When Gypo is feeding the rabble he “stood among them like some primeval monster just risen from the slime in which all things had their origin.”
(Chapter 8) After Gypo has been through the court of enquiry “his whole body shivered and started into awe-inspring movement, monstrous and inhuman, revolting as a spectacle of degrading vice and yet pitiful in its helplessness.” (Chapter 11) In his attempts to flee from his pursuers, he instinctively tries to head for the mountains outside Dublin, like an animal going back to the wilderness. (Chapter 16)
Perhaps much of this brute nature could be inferred from the film, but the novel’s Gypo is far less innocent than the film’s. At one point we are told that he is a former policeman, expelled from the force, who used to enjoy taunting prisoners in the cells. It is clear that both he and Frank McPhillip were responsible for killing a man in a drunken rage. The lie he tells to incriminate another man is far more detailed and calculated in the novel than in the film. Most significantly, there is absolutely no suggestion in the novel that Gypo informs in order to buy a new life in America for himself and Katie Fox (she has a different surname in the film). This detail is exclusively the screenplay’s invention. At one point, Gypo does think that money would make it easier for Katie to stop whoring, as he has a vague jealousy of her clients, but this is only a passing thought. As presented in the novel, Gypo’s main motive in seeking blood money is to buy a bed for the night and a bit of comfort for himself.
He is still a pitiable brute, but on some level he is also a nasty piece of work.
Katie Fox is not the only whore with whom he is entangled. He spends as much time with another who goes by the name of Connemara Maggie (she does not exist in the film). Katie Fox, reasonably tolerant of Gypo, is not the film’s street angel. In fact she is blazingly jealous of Connemara Maggie because of the money Gypo has given Maggie. In the novel’s denouement it is Katie, hallucinating on what the novel calls “dope”, who dobs in Gypo to the people who are pursuing him.
Even this, however, does not indicate how fully the film softens the impact of the novel.
The film is in no doubt that the story takes place in the Tan War. The men who corner and shoot Frankie McPhillip in an early sequence are clearly dressed in Black-and-Tan uniforms. In the film, Dan Gallagher is a resolute but remorseless leader of a patriotic revolutionary movement, which we are meant to infer is the original (unsplit) I.R.A. even though the film never uses that term. Therefore, tragic though it is, eliminating an informer is necessary for the greater patriotic cause. But an interesting thought occurs to me. In the novel, O’Flaherty simply gives the year as “192-”. The term Black-and-Tans is never once used in the novel, and the people to whom Gypo gives his information are simply called “the police”. As for Gallagher’s movement, it is referred to throughout as “the Revolutionary Movement”. Gallagher and his comrades are extreme left-wingers who call themselves Communists. My heretical thought is that this story could just as well be taking place in the Irish Civil War (1922-23) as in the Tan War. In other words, the police who pay Gypo for information could just as well be Free Staters, and the “Revolutionary Organization” could just as well be a left-wing faction of the “intransigent” I.R.A. that was still fighting for a republic. (The “intransigents” included both extreme left-wingers and very conservative nationalists, like their chief de Valera.) So, like O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, this novel could be read as another story of Irishmen pointlessly killing other Irishmen, not fighting the Saxon oppressor.
I could be wrong in this reading. Liam O’Flaherty conferred with John Ford and the screenwriter Dudley Nicholas before the film version was made (he also spent some years living in Hollywood) and I never heard of his objecting to the film. Even so, I think the novel itself justifies my reading. It is at least clear that the novel is far less dewy-eyed about Irish patriotism than the film is. It enters into political matters that the film dares not touch. In the novel it is clear, for example, that among the Irish working classes there is a big split between the “respectable” left and the extreme left. In the novel Frank McPhillip’s father (who does not appear in the film) is described thus:
“Jack McPhillip, the bricklayer, had already begun the ascent from the working class to the middle class. He was a Socialist and chairman of his branch of the trade union, but a thoroughly respectable, conservative Socialist, utterly fanatical in his hatred of the status of a working man.” (Chapter 4)
This is the moderate, Labour-voting Irish left.
By contrast, Dan Gallagher is the doctrinaire Communist. Far from being the film’s stern, just and single-minded military chieftain, who has no real alternative but to condemn the informer, the novel’s Dan Gallagher is self-important, somewhat cowardly and certainly fanatical. He is also a bit of a prat. When Mary McPhillip, the sister of the betrayed man, talks hopefully of marriage, he gives a smug theoretical lecture including such lines as: “Marriage … is truly a capitalist word meaning an arrangement for the protection of property so that legitimate sons could inherit it. So I don’t have to argue with it in my own mind in order to rid myself of a belief in it. Most men have to do that. I am a hundred years before my time. I want to destroy the idea of property. It is my mission. I don’t want to leave property to my children. I don’t want children. They are nothing to me. The perpetuation of my life is my work, in mean’s thoughts, in the fulfilment of my mission.” (Chapter 7)
After his self-interested, pompous rant, what can sensible Mary do but ask “Tell me, Dan, do you believe in anything? Do you believe in Communism? Do you feel pity for the working class?” (Chapter 7) As Dan Gallagher is presented in the novel, these are clearly rhetorical questions that can only be answered in the negative.
This is not one of those novels in which O’Flaherty takes on the church (he certainly did that in other novels). But The Informer gives us a thoroughly negative view of the Irish working class and of all proposed political views. In such company, the brutish Gypo is not as much of a deformed grotesque as he might otherwise seem.
Why is O’Flaherty so condemnatory, so fixated on what is sordid and irredeemable in the Irish? I do wonder if, at the time he wrote The Informer, he wasn’t still smarting at the whole turn that the Irish struggle for independence had taken. O’Flaherty was a founding member of Ireland’s tiny Communist Party. He fought in the Tan war, and when the Treaty was signed, he was one of those who raised the red flag over the ruined Custom House in the hopes of promoting a socialist republic. But as Ireland drifted into chaotic civil war, he left the country in disgust and lived some years in England. The Informer reflects a lot of that disgust. Only the dumb brutes who suffer deserve our sympathy.
This is a long way from the vision the film offers, even if in old age (he died at 88) O’Flaherty was reconciled to both the church and a more traditional view of Ireland. In a way I’d say the novel reflects Ireland’s troubles as seen by an angry and disillusioned Irish working-class intellectual. The film presents a more sentimental view such as would appeal to Irish-Americans one generation removed from the old country.
Bizarre Footnote: I was aware that there was a British film version of The Informer made in 1929, six years before John Ford’s Hollywood version. I had always assumed it was one of those lost and forgotten films that one would never get to see when, surprisingly, I found the whole thing posted on Youtube. So I watched it. To my amazement, it proves to be even more sentimentalised than the 1935 version. Gypo betrays Frankie because they are part of a love triangle – they both love Katie. Katie is a wonderful and fine working class girl (no indication of her profession). There is some shooting but no real politics in the film. The police to whom Gypo informs are dressed like police. When Gypo is finally shot, Katie mourns at the loss of her one true love. In fact, Katie is almost made the main character in the film. The actress playing her (Lya de Putti) gets top billing. The finale in the church, however, is very much like the finale in the Ford version. Gypo lies dead with, falling upon him, a cross-like shadow created by a skylight.
There are some interesting things about this creaky and ancient film. First, it was directed by a German, Arthur Robison, and its pictorial style is very much the ominous play of light-and-shadow of German expressionist cinema. In fact, pictorially, parts of it are like the 1935 version, and there’s the strong suspicion that Ford had actually seen this version before making his own. Second, Gypo is played by the (second-billed) Swedish actor Lars Hanson. Far from looking like a big Irish brute he, with his intense, intelligent face and swish of curly hair, looks more like a troubled romantic poet. But third, and most eerily, the film was made when British films were just switching to sound. For most of its length this is a silent film with sound effects (music and noises) but with dialogue conveyed in inter-titles. For about the last quarter, however, it switches to spoken dialogue, and this is a real shock. The voices that come out of all these Irish characters’ mouths are plummy middle-class English voices. Given that Lars Hanson was Swedish, I assume the very English voice attributed to him actually belongs to somebody speaking out of camera range as he mimes along. (This was the technique Hitchcock used when he had the German-speaking actress Annie Ondra playing a Cockney girl in his first talkie Blackmail.) I agree with one critic I read who said that the hollow, unreal voices sound as if they were being produced at a spiritualist séance. Weird.