I’m not sure exactly what I imagined The Informer to be, but it wasn’t what I expected. This is the film that gave John Ford his first of four Best Director Oscars (still unmatched) and gave an Oscar to lead Victor McLaughlin. The title gives away the plot to some extent, and the film doesn’t go big and broad, but stays close and tight to the minimal action and the actors.
The look of the film was surprising to me. It looks like a silent film that was lovingly photographed with an eye toward German Expressionism; it’s beautiful to behold. The sets, though, look exactly like lean and clean sets, and don’t looked live-in at all.
The Oscars and the New York Film Critics Circle did a kind of dance with the awards for 1935. In spite of the four awards given to The Informer by the Academy (the others were for Best Screenplay and Best Score), the Best Picture Oscar went to the epic and higher-profile Mutiny on the Bounty, which only won that single award. The NYFFC gave The Informer the Best Picture and Best Director Awards, but gave Best Actor to Mutiny on the Bounty’s Charles Laughton, which some feel is one of the great performances of all time.
So if that’s the case, why didn’t Laughton win? Probably for reasons having little to do with the quality of his performance. That year was the last year without a Best Supporting Actor or Actress category, and Mutiny on the Bounty got three acting nominations—for the two leads Laughton and Clark Gable (generally agreed to be miscast) and for the lesser role played by Franchot Tone. Tone would have been in the Supporting Category had that category existed. With three nominations, it’s not surprising that the solid work of McLaughlin might win. Also, Laughton had won Best Actor in 1933 for The Private Life of Henry VIII, and Gable won in 1934 for his work in It Happened One Night—good reasons for those not voting on quality of performance to give it to someone other than these two.
McLaughlin is quite good, and for those only familiar with his supporting work over the years, surprising. McLaughlin was big lunk of a man, with a face that could be almost handsome in some light and positively pug-ugly in another light (consistent with his having been a pugilist before becoming an actor). He drank a lot and played drunks often. Here he holds the film together with a character that is both wanting in his decision-making and yet deeply sympathetic at the same time. For its day, it was quite realistic and powerful, and still is today. The performance is set against that rather spare set lit so evocatively, and with a lyricism in the direction that is so common with Ford yet so seemingly inconsistent with his gruff external manner. Note: This is one of those films that puts lipstick and perfect eye make-up on all the women, even the streetwalkers. Very movie studio, and quite distracting.
If you’re a film historian or a completist with the work of Ford, McLaughlin, or Max Steiner (Oscars for this, Now, Voyager and Since You Went Away, plus nominations for The Gay Divorcee, The Garden of Allah, Jezebel, Gone with the Wind, Dark Victory, The Letter, Sergeant York, Casablanca, Life with Father, Johnny Belinda, The Caine Mutiny, and Battle Cry, among several others), it’s worth a watch. But especially when compared to the previous year’s It Happened One Night, with all that fresh energy and lightness of touch, it seems rather old and like a silent that just learned the first few steps of how to use sound.
The Man with the Golden Arm came 20 years later, and is a model of a mid-century film with a dazzling score and a great central performance. Plot-wise, it was cutting edge and daring, dealing with drugs and addiction, though it shares with The Informer the tendency to use long unbroken shots as scenes. It initially wasn’t given a seal from the Motion Picture Association of America because of its focus on addiction, and like the director Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue two years earlier, helped change American films by breaking the rules in ways that got the rules changed.
As with The Informer, the sets look like sets, but are less sparse and more visually complex. But they still look like sets. The music, however, by Elmer Bernstein (no, no relation to Leonard) doesn’t just tell us how we should feel as viewers/listeners (as so many scores did, and still do), but worked percussively with the on-screen action to create a fresh fusion of image, action, and sound–a bit reminiscent of the score for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Anyone wanting to know more about jazz in American film, or how a score can interact with action should take a look and a listen.
Aside from the notoriety of the subject matter, however, it’s the performances that are worth paying attention to for better or for worse. On the worse side is Eleanor Parker, a lovely, regal, intelligent, and talented actress completely miscast as the lead character’s wife. (Parker is probably best known for playing the Baroness who might marry the Captain in The Sound of Music, though she was nominated three times for Best Actress (Caged, Detective Story, and Interrupted Melody.) Sometimes talent alone doesn’t make a part work.
This is also an early film of Kim Novak, just 22 in the film and holding her own in every scene, if not completely owning her part. She is lovely as always, and growing as an actress.
But the film belongs to Frank Sinatra as the former addict out of jail and wanting to stay clean. Most film students remember his Best Supporting Oscar for his comeback role two years earlier in From Here to Eternity, where (spoiler alert) he is killed by Ernest Borgnine’s character. The role, the story behind it, and the Oscar are so famous it’s easy to forget that Sinatra did a one-two punch here with this performance. Right now it’s a trope to have the drug-addled lead go through the dramatic drying out experience, but here it was fresh and far more complex than similar scenes a decade earlier in The Lost Weekend. Those scenes were as powerful as anything else on the screen in 1955, but the rest of his performance was note-perfect, too. [It’s rumored that Marlon Brando was offered the role, and Sinatra swept in and got it before Brando said yes.) If you’ve only seen his later, cool-guy work in the 1960s, and perhaps even if you’re familiar with From Here to Eternity, it’s a bit of a shock to see what an accomplished and layered actor Sinatra was here. The film and especially that performance still stand on their own today.
Note: Sinatra desperately wanted to win the Best Actor Oscar for this film. He didn’t. The winner that year? Ernest Borgnine, for Marty.
If he hadn’t been such a great singer, Sinatra could have been one of our greatest actors. Music’s gain is film’s loss. There’s no telling, of course, if his obvious hunger in both the roles in 1954 and 1955 would have stayed with him, but that hunger fed two of the best performances of the decade. I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t have, but at least we have these two to demonstrate a great talent. The Man with the Golden Arm is anything but a feel-good film, and the film’s ending is a mess. But Sinatra is something to behold in every scene. Since he dominates the film, it’s worth the watch just to see how very good he could be.