The Informer, from 1929, is a late silent prestige production by British International Pictures. It has a starry cast, an A-list director and cinematographers, and was based on a recent and popular novel of the same name by Irish author Liam O’Flaherty, concerning the loyalties and betrayals of a group of revolutionaries in the newly independent Ireland of 1922.
Like Hitchcock’s Blackmail, released earlier in the same year, it was made in both talkie and silent versions, to cover both the cinemas that had converted to sound and the still significant circuit waiting for their sound equipment to be installed. Early sound technology was clunky, however, and while Blackmail has benefited from the enduring fame of Hitchcock to keep interest alive in its sound version, other films from the transition period have not been so lucky.
For those interested in British silent film, The Informer has always been in the top 10 of great pictures from this era, but there’s no denying that the sound, part talkie, version loses ground to the more elegant silent film. The film has also suffered because its director, Arthur Robison, is not in the pantheon of silent directors. As such the film is never going to be programmed in auteur seasons, such as Hitchcock or his contemporary Anthony Asquith might enjoy.
Part talkies were a temporary economic fix for films during the transition to sound. Both Hitchcock and Asquith, under orders from the studio to produce such versions, produced typically artistic solutions, with Blackmail and A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) respectively. Others struggled to incorporate music and effects tracks, with inserted dialogue sequences recorded on inadequate equipment, without the proper ambience or the facility to mix the different tracks.
Primitive dubbing technique gave inappropriate voices to actors and the significance of the performers’ accents was underestimated. For a modern audience, this is difficult to get over. In the case of The Informer, the idea of working-class Dubliners talking like they are at a Kensington soirée undermines the carefully crafted atmosphere. Katie Fox, one of the lead characters, played by the lovely Hungarian actor Lya de Putti, sounds like a posh person at the bottom of a well.
The silent film allows the audience to supply its own ’voice’, aided by the occasional dialect inflection in the intertitles – “I just came back to see me mother.”
Kirsty Shanks, one of the BFI National Archive’s expert team who painstakingly compared the various source prints for the new restoration, observed: “Lars Hanson’s silent acting is mesmerising and intense, but dubbed he comes across as a Neanderthal. The voices are not only inconsonant with the actors but with the Dublin setting of the film”.
The characters played by English actors come across better – perhaps they were able to dub their own voices. Warwick Ward as Gallagher doesn’t attempt an Irish accent, but Craighall Sherry (a Scot) makes a reasonable fist of it. And, for those interested in such things, the sound version may reveal much about what orchestra scores for such films were like during the later 1920s, a subject for which there is precious little evidence.
The pre-digital restoration of the sound version in 2005 was met with a slightly muted reaction, probably due to Hubert Bath’s grandiose score, the poor recording and the faintly risible accents. I have no doubt that, free of the distractions of the original sound track and with Garth Knox’s sparkling new score, The Informer can show what an elegant late-1920s international movie can achieve.
Compare this frame from the silent version, with its dramatic downward lighting focusing attention on Kate…
…with this flat, even lighting in the sound version.