The Informer is based on Liam O’Flaherty’s novel of unrest in 1922 Dublin. Oscar-winning Best Actor Victor McLaglen plays dimwitted Gypo Nolan, who betrays his former comrade (Wallace Ford), wanted for murder, to the British authorities. With the reward money, Gypo dreams of sailing to America with his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame), saving her from prostitution, until his guilt forces him to take the rap for the murder. After escaping from his mock trial, Gypo is shot and stumbles to a church, seeking retribution from Frankie’s mother.
While The Informer is dated in its performances and Oscar-winning script, the direction by John Ford (who picked up the first of four Academy Awards in his career) is still as tight and atmospheric as ever and Max Steiner’s score adds immeasurably to the emotional impact of the film. Considering his influence on the art of film scoring, it is fitting that Steiner was the first recipient of an Oscar for a totally original score.
The film is dark and gritty and Steiner’s score sets the tone right away with a grim, heavy march in the main titles that conveys Gypo’s downtrodden situation in life. As Steiner commented in The New York Times, “every character should have a theme. In The Informer we used a theme to identify Victor McLaglen. A blind man could have sat in a theater and known when Gypo was on the screen.”
One of the distinctions of the score is the way in which the music makes its entrances and exits on some sort of physical action, such as a door opening or slamming shut. While these instances are not usually noticed by the audience, they gives the music an unconscious reason for being there. Steiner’s use of sforzando (or “stinger”) chords to drive home a point in the action, while considered insulting by many more “sophisticated” musical tastes of today, was more common to movies of the period.
A particularly effective musical cue is heard as Gypo sits in his jail cell and water drips on him, the music matching it drop for drop. Steiner said:
- I had a certain music effect I wanted to use for this. I wanted to catch each of these drops musically. The property man and I worked for days trying to regulate the water tank so it dripped in tempo and so I could accompany it. This took a good deal of time and thought because a dripping faucet doesn’t always drip in the same rhythm. We finally mastered it, and I believe it was one of the things that won me the [Academy] award.
This practice of matching the music exactly to the action onscreen is known as “Mickey Mousing,” taken from the common practice of composers overemphasizing the antics in cartoons and animated films. Thought the example above is a relatively minor case, Steiner would unfortunately be plagued by this criticism throughout his career. As the story goes, Bette Davis is said to have remarked upon seeing a scene that Steiner had scored in one of her films, “I don’t know who went up that staircase…Max or me.”
Another common element in Steiner’s work is pre-existing melodies weaved into the score. The Informer includes “Danny Boy,” “Rose of Tralee,” and “Minstrel Boy.” The character of Frankie is represented by “The Wearing of the Green,” the traditional song of the Irish rebel movement. For the hated British officials, Steiner uses a minor-key variant of “Rule Britannia.” Steiner’s mocking version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” musically squashes Gypo’s dreams of traveling to America.
In the over-the-top finale, as Gypo receives retribution from Frankie’s mother for his crime, a choir sings “Ave Maria” to signal her forgiveness and Gypo’s ascension into heaven. Steiner has been taken to task over the years for this ending as often as he has been praised.
Due to the arcane rules of the time in which heads of the music department won Oscars instead of the composer, Max Steiner was the only composer to actually receive the award for his winning score thanks to his position as head of RKO’s music department. The rules were eventually–and thankfully–changed in 1938.