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Thursday, August 30, 2007


After laying off for a while, I delved back into that VHS John Ford collection I inherited from a friend -- a John Ford freak who upgraded to DVD.

"The Informer" (1935) is a tour-de-force by brawny, pug-faced actor Victor McLaglen. McLaglen's Gypo turns in his friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), an Irish rebel with a price on his head. McPhillip is killed in a subsequent shootout. But Gypo squanders the 20-pound reward (largely on booze) in one "Twilight Zone"-esque night.

"The Informer" reminds me of a '30s horror film, for a few practical reasons.

In his famous period epics, Ford exploited vast landscapes. Here, he is trying to convey a gloomy Ireland at night, using Hollywood backlots. So the sets are dark and stylized, a la "Dracula," "The Invisible Man" or even "Svengali."

Also, there are a couple of faces that we horror geeks know well. Off the top of my head, I can name several horror films Ford was in: "The Mummy's Hand," "Freaks," "The Ape Man," "The Mysterious Mr. Wong." Then there's Una O'Connor as Frankie's brokenhearted mother, who was in "Bride of Frankenstein" and "The Invisible Man." O'Connor's climactic scene with McLaglen is probably her finest hour (among many).

I also caught "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). This later Ford film almost seems like Ford had proven all he had to prove, and now was settling down for a few breezy laughs (not that the story is a comedy). And what a cast: Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, my hero John Carradine, Lee Marvin (as the title cad), Lee Van Cleef (as a sinister henchman), Andy Divine (never more hilarious), Woody Strode (as ever-reliable ranchhand Pompey) and on and on.

One aside came to mind that kind of cracked me up.

The film is set in the old West and largely told in one long flashback. But the bookends at the beginning and end show a West that has been more or less civilized thanks to the railroad, the telegraph, etc.

At the beginning of "Valance," Senator Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) unexpectedly comes to town. A young newspaper reporter dashes to an old-fashioned public telephone hanging at the train station, cranks it up and phones the scoop into the office.

I had to laugh, because up until about 15 years ago, technology hadn't advanced much since the period depicted in "Valance." In my time, I've phoned "scoops" into the office via pay telephones. Today, that whipper-snapper would simply whip out his iPhone and update his myspace to tell the world that Senator Stoddard has arrived. But nobody would care, because Senator Stoddard isn't an "American Idol" contestant, a reality-show star or a celebutante charged with a DUI.


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