In an interview republished in the anthology Interviews With Film Directors, Jean Mitry cites John Ford’s desire to balance innovation and aesthetics with populist appeal. “Directing is craft,” Ford is quoted as saying, “If a director’s films do not make money, he cannot expect to retain the confidence and good will of the men who put up the wherewithal” (195). It is perhaps for that reason–his acceptance of the vision of a director as a paid worker who is responsible first to those paying his salary–that Ford believes directors get a chance to make an artistic film approximately once in ten years. If that film is successful, he may get to do another, but “only rarely does the opportunity arise to make such films two or three times in a row” (196).
I’m not sure what I think of this attitude. It strikes me as disingenuous, but then again it is easy to forget that not everyone can see into the future. This is a quote from 1935, before Ford had made The Searchers, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, or The Grapes of Wrath. The valuation of the director as auteur is so ensconced today that it often takes only one commercial success (or even better than expected gate) for a director to be able to have some clout. Ford spend the first half of his career in a different environment, though. I note from IMDB.com that he directed fifteen films in the year 1919. Clearly in the crank-it-out world of studio pictures, being able to meet a deadline and a budget were more important than being innovative or experimental.
When Ford’s name is mentioned, the first titles that spring to mind are usually Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley. It might not be an exaggeration to say that The Informer is an important picture if for no other reason than that it allowed Ford to continue to have the studio’s confidence and eventually make the films for which he is better known. That makes it sound like The Informer is not a great picture in its own right. The influence of German expressionistic film is obvious to even the lay-cinephile, and the plot reminds me a little of King Lear in the way themes are developed through repetition with minor variations rather than stark contrasts.
Sympathetic to its traitorous protagonists in a way that foreshadows Webber & Rice’s take on the gospel story in Jesus Christ Superstar, the film nevertheless presents the traitor’s fate as being as just as it is inevitable. The ending is sublime, the product of a time where there didn’t need to be a huge plot twist to drive a point home. When Nolan calls out to his dead compatriot that his mother has forgiven him, his relief is palpable, and we see the wonder of the Christian religion is not merely in what it can achieve through its saints but what it can forgive from its sinners.