The Noir File: John Ford’s ‘The Informer’ is a great precursor

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

The Informer” (1935, John Ford). Friday, Dec. 14, 6:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m.). Gypo Nolan – a hulking, good-natured, almost childlike brute of a Dubliner (played by Victor McLaglen) – has betrayed his I.R.A. friend to the British police. Now, with the reward in his pocket, he prowls the dark, fog-shrouded streets of his city.

Victor McLaglen plays Gypo, a hulking, good-natured, almost childlike brute of a Dubliner.

At first Gypo pushes aside his anxiety and remorse, and spends the blood money, carousing and drinking with his instant new “friends.”

But gradually, fate and darkness, along with Gypo’s old comrades and his conscience, begin to close in – as the I.R.A. and their just but relentless commander (Preston Foster) track down the informer.

Of all the great film noir precursors of the ’30s – “M,” “The 39 Steps,” “You Only Live Once,” “Scarface,” “Le jour se lève” and “Public Enemy” – John Ford’s Oscar-winning masterpiece, “The Informer,” is one of the darkest, most powerful and most noirish.

Based on the much-admired Irish novel by Liam O’Flaherty, “The Informer” won Oscars for Ford’s superb direction, for Dudley Nichols’ taut, dramatic script, for Max Steiner’s haunting music and for McLaglen’s unforgettable performance as Gypo – a doomed man alone, surrounded by danger, tormented by his own guilt-ridden, fear-lashed soul. (In 1968, Jules Dassin remade “The Informer,” not as effectively, as “Up Tight.”)

Wednesday, Dec. 12

Barbara Stanwyck as Dixie Daisy in “Lady of Burlesque.”

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “The Man I Love” (1947, Raoul Walsh). Jack Warner once said “Raoul Walsh’s idea of a tender love scene is to burn down a whorehouse.” Here is Walsh’s idea of a tender love story: the tough, racy tale of a sultry, wised-up night club singer (Ida Lupino) and the man who loves her: slick gangster Robert Alda.

5 a.m. (2 a.m.): “Lady of Burlesque” (1943, William Wellman). A salty murder mystery set in the world of strip-tease shows, with Barbara Stanwyck as the stripper-sleuth. Based on the best-seller “The G-String Murders,” a book credited to legendary peeler Gypsy Rose Lee, ghosted by crackerjack comedy/mystery writer Craig Rice (“Home Sweet Homicide”).

Friday, Dec. 14

1:45 p.m. (10:45 a.m.): “Citizen Kane” (1941, Orson Welles).

Saturday, Dec. 15

8:45 a.m. (5:45 a.m.): “Impact” (1949, Arthur Lubin). Infidelity and murder plots, with Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Helen Walker, Anna May Wong and Charles Coburn.

Sunday, Dec. 16

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Wait Until Dark” (1967, Terence Young). From the hit stage play by Frederick (“Dial M for Murder”) Knott. Blind woman Audrey Hepburn sees no evil and tries to stave off Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “The Unholy Three” (1925, Tod Browning). A shivery thriller about three crooks who meet at the circus and form an unholy gang: a strong man (Victor McLaglen), a midget (Harry Earles) and a cross-dressing ventriloquist (Lon Chaney). One of the eeriest of all Browning’s macabre collaborations with Chaney (Silent with music track.)

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Edith, Head of her class: A shrewd woman with a sharp eye and unprecedented success in Hollywood

Famed costume designer Edith Head knew that clothes should underscore an actor’s character, not upstage it. And she applied the same discipline to dealing with Hollywood’s elite, putting every ounce of effort into making them look their absolute best while deflecting attention from herself.

Edith Head

Actress Susan Claassen

A shrewd approach along with her natural talent for design, a gift for navigating studio politics and a tremendous amount of hard work made her one of the movie industry’s most successful women.

In her 60-year career, at Paramount and Universal, she worked on more than 1,131 films, received 35 Academy Award nominations and won eight Oscars, more than any other woman. (Walt Disney, with 26 Oscars, holds the record for a man.)

This savvy lady with her tailored suits, neat little bun and statement specs comes out of the shadows and into the spotlight in “A Conversation With Edith Head,” which opened Friday night at LA’s Odyssey Theatre. And she’s spirited, strong, funny and flawed as played by actress Susan Claassen.

One of her peccadilloes was a disdain for modesty. “I’m not different from other designers, I’m the best,” Claassen tells the audience matter of factly. Another memorable Head aphorism: “You can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it.”

Tinseltown anecdotes and stories of working with the stars are sprinkled throughout the play, which is set in 1981. Head died in October of that year at age 83, still under contract to Universal, having just completed the Steve Martin film “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”

The show recreates Head's cocktail dress for Bette Davis (far left) and a gown for Elizabeth Taylor (far right).

The format includes questions from the audience as well as free advice on your sartorial choices. Since Claassen called me stunning and asked if I was a model, naturally I think the woman is the greatest genius known to Western civilization. ;)

But, joking aside, Claassen is brilliant in this role, capturing the character’s gestures, mannerisms and demeanor without mimicry or impersonation. Claassen reveals the enormous power Head wielded through her sketch pad and pencil as well as the sacrifices (15-hour days, six days a week in her heyday), self-doubt and sadness that were facets of her extraordinary life.

A closer look at the recreated dress for Bette Davis in "All About Eve" from 1950.

Claassen, who recently received an Ovation nomination for Lead Actress in a Play for this part, co-wrote the work with Paddy Calistro, author of the book “Edith Head’s Hollywood.” The idea came to Claassen while watching a TV biography about Head.

Says Claassen: “Not only do I bear a striking resemblance to Edith, but we share the same love for clothes and fashion. … There are many myths about her, but she was a discreet, tenacious personality. She knew whose hips needed clever disguising and made sure those legendary stars always looked the part.”

Head was a frequent collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock and added élan to the wardrobe of film noir stars, dressing, for example, Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.,” Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief,” Kim Novak in “Vertigo,” and Tippi Hedren in “The Birds.”

She also dressed Bette Davis as the glamorous actress Margo Channing in “All About Eve” and designed Elizabeth Taylor’s white ball gown in “A Place in the Sun.” In fact, she worked with nearly all the Hollywood greats, including Mae West, Clara Bow, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

When in 1967 Paramount chose not to renew her contract, she was hired by Universal, thanks to her friendship with Hitchcock, who perhaps really was her favorite director, despite her practical policy of naming her favorite director as the one for whom she was currently working.

Opening night fell on Head's birthday. Cake and champagne were in order, natch.

Though Head’s motto was to accentuate the positive and camouflage the negative, the chapter of her childhood spent in the Nevada desert was good training for holding her own in Hollywood. She was, she said, used to dealing with scorpions.

Opening night coincided with what would have been Head’s 114th birthday so, after the show, party guests sipped champagne and ate red-velvet birthday cake, donated by Susie Cakes.

“A Conversation With Edith Head” is a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, 90025. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 13. (The play premiered in Tucson, Ariz., in 2002 and has since played in many US cities and abroad.) Tickets are $40. For more information: 310-477-2055; www.edithhead.biz.

Photos from the production are copyright of Film Noir Blonde.

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