Informers across the Atlantic: a NYT review of “The Informer”

As I was thinking about what to write for this weekend’s blog post, I stumbled across a review from the New York Times of John Ford’s adaptation of “The Informer.” Clearly, this story has transatlantic power—adapted by one of the most prominent American directors and glowingly praised by arguably the most prominent American newspaper. The review recommends the movie as “a striking psychological study of a gutter Judas and a rawly impressive picture of the Dublin underworld during the Black and Tan terror” and “one of the finest dramas of the year.” Victor McLagen, who plays Gypo, is described as “just a bit sinister” and “a character worthy the pen of a Dostoevsky.”

Despite the notable positivity of the review, though, one line specifically stuck out to me: “Although the photoplay makes you understand why informer is the ugliest word in an Irishman’s vocabulary, there is a tragic quality in this man’s bewildered terror.” I certainly agree with the identification of a tragic quality in Gypo’s terror, but the easy assertion that “informer” is the gravest insult known to an Irishman poses some questions about the Black and Green Atlantic. Most obviously, I wonder about the historical origins of this stereotype—what Atlantic exchanges made this impression on the reviewer? Clearly, Americans are aware of some degree of colonial oppression against Ireland such that betraying one’s country is understood as the greatest sin.

The phrase also implies a contrast with American culture. An American audience understands why informer is “the ugliest word in an Irishman’s vocabulary” only after watching the movie, because it is not the ugliest word in an American’s vocabulary. For me, this brings the Fugitive Slave Act and the slave posters strewn across the pages of Moon and the Mars to mind. The Fugitive Slave Act, much like the 20 pounds from the police in “The Informer,” rewarded informing. Though the historical context is wildly different, it strikes me as another node of comparison across the Black and Green Atlantic. Informing leads to dire consequences for both the Irish and Black Americans, but this (presumably white) reviewer only recognizes that reality for the Irish.