There are features on the disc and in the booklet accompanying the BFI’s new dual format release of Arthur Robison’s 1929 thriller The Informer describing how long and careful the restoration process was. Just as well; anyone under the delusion that a silent film could be restored in a couple of weeks might suspect them of crass topicality here. With the death of Martin McGuinness, lingering concerns over what the Irish border might look like post-Brexit and that godawful Ed Sheeran song setting Anglo-Irish relations back about half a century, the time seems right for a look back on how Irish issues were treated on screen in the earliest years of the 20th century.
It seems remarkable that Northern Ireland was addressed in British cinema at all during this period, considering the restrictions on political subject matter at the time. But then The Informer isn’t really a political film. Liam O’Flaherty’s source novel is so universal in its view of political violence and tensions that Jules Dassin could transplant it into the 1960s African-American Civil Rights movement in his film Uptight. In Robison’s version, it’s something close to a love triangle involving Lars Hanson’s Gypo selling out wanted IRA assassin Francis (Carl Harbord) to the Black and Tans after realising his girlfriend Katie (Lya De Putti) has feelings for him.
I say “IRA” and “Black and Tans”; in O’Flaherty’s novel that’s who they are, and in the Oscar-winning 1935 adaptation by John Ford, that’s who they are too. British censorship of the time means Robison can only refer to “the police”, without specifying what force in particular they are and how this might impact on the story. The IRA, too, are mentioned in a strangely elusive way, always as “the Party” or “the Organisation”. The overall feel is similar to those early John le Carré novels which glossed MI6 as “the Circus”; it might be for censorship reasons, but it does lend the narrative a strange, dreamlike feeling.
Other sources of discord between the film-makers and the censors were handled similarly transparently. Katie was a prostitute in the novel, but isn’t in the film – nevertheless, it’s clear that the sex trade is part of Robison’s underworld. The real disruption came when, halfway through production, talkies were invented. Other silent films in production at this time stayed the course, but The Informer became a “part-talkie”, distributed in sound and silent versions, and both of these are included on the BFI disc.
In the booklet, Bryony Dixon describes the sound version as being of archival interest only, pointing to the undeniably superior German Expressionist lighting (Robison was German-born, and often worked with European cinematographers) as a trump card. It’s true that the sound version is less visually seductive, though it has its merits. The silent version, at 97 minutes, can see Robison seduced into dropping the pace in favour of long close-ups of his leads. No such problem in the sound version, which runs a tight 83 minutes. On the other hand, you have to put up with the accents of the cast. Of the central triangle, Harbord was British, Hanson was Swedish and De Putti was Hungarian; their accents will make you pine for the silent version’s title cards.
Ironically, the real asset of the silent version is a new audio feature produced for this disc. John Reynders’s score for the sound version is nice enough but it can’t compete with Garth Knox’s brand-new score for the silent film. Knox says his central idea was to restore the Irish cultural context lost in the translation of O’Flaherty’s novel to the screen, and he does this with sensitivity and clever arrangements. He also pays close attention to the rhythm of Emile de Ruelle’s editing – indeed, in one of the still-thrilling action sequences, he times the drum hits to the gunshots. It works perfectly, proving that, although the film might be silent, it has a musical quality all of its own.
It’s not exactly The Wind That Shakes the Barley, but The Informer works very well as a thriller, opening with an explosive shoot-out and keeping the tension high for the rest of the run-time. The political context is sketched in by one of those wonderfully obscure extras that only the BFI can reliably provide; a series of contemporary newsreels dealing with the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921. Some of the subtleties are beyond the capacity of a silent short to illustrate, but one thing is very clear: the newsreel producers were very confident this would be the end of the Northern Irish conflict. Nearly one hundred years on, the situation is undoubtedly calmer, but it still feels too soon to be confident.