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The Forgotten: Start Talkin'

Arthur Robison's 1929 version of _The Informant_ applies German expressionism to an Irish story filmed in England.

Liam O'Flaherty's novel The Informer, in which an IRA man rats on a comrade for the reward money and endures a night of agonizing guilt, punishment and redemption, has been filmed thrice, and all three versions are of interest. Jules Dassin's proto-blaxploitation version, Uptight! (1968), is the least impressive, but does boast fine performances by screenwriters Jason Bernard and Ruby Dee, who take lead roles, and the always imposing Raymond St. Jacques and Roscoe Lee Browne. The climax, scored to Booker T. and the M.G.'s "Time is Tight" (a.k.a. The Blues Brothers' theme) is pretty exciting, once you get over the shock.

John Ford's 1935 The Informer is the most faithful and famed, though its reputation is not as high as it once was. At times the RKO production, with its Max Steiner score and hulking performance from Victor McLaglan, recalls King Kong (McLaglan even goes after the wrong blonde at one point). Ford's fondness for broad, drunken humor and heightened sentimentality tend to detract from the good stuff, which is all to do with the foggy chiaroscuro lighting and expressionistic compositions. There's also the problem that a central character with such a clouded inner life, who cannot figure out his own motivations or even lie convincingly, can be trying company for ninety minutes.

The 1929 British version provides more of those, and even features numerous shots which could have directly inspired Ford. But it seems as likely that Ford's latent Murnau tendencies, combined with the particular studio environments the story called for, resulted in powerful visual coincidences.

The British version is directed by an American, Arthur Robison, who had made all his films in Germany up to that point, including expressionist classic Warning Shadows. The artier British films were always made under the German influence, and this one boasts moody photography by Theodore Sparkuhl and Werner Brandes. The obvious comparison is with Hitchcock, and indeed the film's music is by Hubert Bath, who also scored Blackmail.

When Hitchcock decided to reshoot Blackmail as an all-talking picture, he ensured that it stayed in the public and critical consciousness a lot longer than Robison's film, which apart from being eclipsed by the Ford, is a part-talkie, a strange bastard medium which only existed for about a year. Of course, I have a perverse fondness for these weird, lopsided vehicles, though it's always an awkward moment when the mummers begin to talk, and that's doubly true here.

Hitchcock famously had to live-dub his star, Czech sexpot Anny Ondra, with the actress moving her lips soundlessly while Joan Barry enunciated into a microphone off-screen, providing cut-glass tones rather unsuited to a working-class shop girl. Robison is doubly hampered, having cast both Swede Lars Hansen (The Wind, The Scarlet Letter) and Austro-Hungarian Lya De Putti. Hansen is in particular trouble since he was used to playing all his scenes in Swedish, even in Hollywood pictures.

And again, instead of giving them Irish accents, which audiences in London might not understand, they are made to talk posh. And so begins the interminable reign of the middle-class sensibility over British cinema. While American movies attained a rich demotic idiom within a year, an authentic proletarian voice didn't really make itself heard in the UK until the 60s.

In addition to the dubbing handicap, Robison is under the influence of the prevailing Germanic school of thought which held that dialogue must be delivered slowly, with the kind of heavy dramatic pauses that would have Harold Pinter checking his wristwatch. (The same year's Atlantic, a Titanic spectacular helmed by E.A. Dupont, delivers a hilarious pause of thirty full seconds ahead of the line "The ship has three hours to live." The more urgent the situation, the slower everybody gets.) This gives the last half of the movie the feel of listening in on a spiritualist's party line, with lifeless voices intoning their various woes from somewhere out of shot, while the actors wait, then mouth, then wait again. Very druggy feeling.

Still, it's not all like that (and it would be fascinating to see the all-silent version, which is likely as good as Blackmail). The part-talkie interpolates a lot of purely visual scenes, sometimes with snatches of dialogue dubbed in, and these move. Robison's signature shot is a propulsive track following Hansen through frozen crowds, the camera typically a little high, hovering over him like a vulture. The shoot-outs, with their firecracker sound effects, are as dynamic as Ford's, and the climax is extremely powerful

The other point worth noting is political: Ford's particular brand of Irish-American love of country made him an easy mark for the IRA, who could be portrayed as heroes. (In Britain, the media followed a strictly anti-terrorist line; Hollywood movies on the subject seemed bizarre, with their weasel-words and plausible deniability, typified by the exchange, concerning a villain, "Is he IRA?" "No, he's too crazy for that.")

In a British film of the 20s, any pro-Republican sympathy would be hot stuff, so the movie removes all references to the paramilitary Black & Tans, and all the talk of Ireland. The opening sequence has to establish that the wanted man killed a police chief, so he's wanted for good reason, but also that he did it by mistake, so he's not that bad. Fortunately, this fancy footwork fades out as the drama gets moving, and the situation is a particularly strong one, as has been shown in every version to date.


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Unfortunately I’ve seen neither Robison’s nor Ford’s film, but wanted to expand upon this [apologies for the digression]: “This gives the last half of the movie the feel of listening in on a spiritualist’s party line, with lifeless voices intoning their various woes from somewhere out of shot, while the actors wait, then mouth, then wait again. Very druggy feeling.” This is a quality I tend to admire, even though it’s not always effective [and even when it is, it’s still unintentional,] of early sound films and one I wish had really been developed more. With that suggestion of ‘something in the air’ that was perfect for horror and mystery films, but with an ambiguously surreal edge. Sometimes I wonder how many, significantly, later films used this effect [India Song in particular comes to mind.]
Yes, I sometimes like that too, but it can also be painful in talkies. I guess there’s deliberate pacing and then there’s laughable. Regardless, everyone can agree that “listening in on a spiritualist’s party line” is hilarious! Great article and I’ll look out for this one. Thanks!
White Zombie is pretty good for spaced-out time-drag. And Dracula, intolerably slow in places on a TV, just about works if seen on the big screen. Certainly the performances reveal a lot more detail, which keeps the interest.
White Zombie definitely was, though I wish it had been somewhat longer and could’ve delved into the environment more. I’ve actually quite admired Dracula in that respect already, but can only imagine how much better it plays out in the theater. My personal vote would have to go with Vampyr, recording the entire soundtrack seperately adds a whole other layer of mystique. For pure auditory hallucintonation, I’d put forward Joyce’s reading from Finnegans Wake.
…which I haven’t heard. A new treat, thanks! Vampyr is an amazing experience. My first viewing was of the English dub, which is VERY odd, with the music cutting out when anybody speaks. Dubbing in the 30s evidently wasn’t too sophisticated.
No problem, hope you enjoy(ed) it! Interesting, I’ve never heard of an English-dubbed version. Is it still in circulation?
Probably not — it was released by Redemption in the UK, who seemed to make it a point of hono(u)r to use the worst source materials they could find.

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