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THE INFORMER – Max Steiner


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director John Ford came across a 1925 novel, The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty, which explored the dark underside of the Irish War of Independence. He felt that the story provided suspense, drama, betrayal, and tragedy, which would translate well to the big screen. RKO Studios however was reticent to proceed with the project due to its depressing subject matter and unsympathetic lead, but they relented following Ford’s great success with his prior film The Lost Patrol, which earned their trust and permission to proceed with a budget of $250,000. Dudley Nichols was hired to write the screenplay and a fine cast was assembled which included Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan, Heather Angel as Mary McPhillip, Preston Foster as Dan Gallagher, Margot Grahame as Katie Madden, Wallace Ford as Frankie McPhillip, and Una O’Connor as Mrs. McPhillip.

The setting of the film is Dublin, Ireland, circa 1922 during the Irish War of Independence from the United Kingdom. Gypo Nolan, a member of the Irish Republican Army has been discharged for disobeying orders to kill a ‘Black and Tan’ constable. Now broke and down on his luck he laments his girl working as a prostitute to make ends meet. He learns of a bounty of £20 his former comrade Frankie and decides to rat him out to the British and then use the money to purchase passage to America to begin a new life with his gal Katie. Eventually the IRA determines it was Gypo who betrayed them and he is mortally wounded at Katie’s place. With his dying breaths he reaches a church where Frankie’s mother is praying and begs her forgiveness, which she grants. He dies crying to heaven Frankie’s name saying his mother had forgiven him. The film was a commercial failure with its first release, but after being awarded four Academy Awards it was re-released and made the studio a significant profit of $700,000. It secured six Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Film Editing, winning for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Film Score.

Director John Ford was pleased with his collaboration with Max Steiner on his last film The Lost Patrol, and so brought him back for this latest project. Ford made the decision to bring Steiner in early for discussions with himself, Dudley Nichols the screenplay writer, Van Nest Poglase the set designer, Joe August the cameraman and a couple of technicians to discuss the proper way to approach the film. This was done before the screenplay had been written, which was quite remarkable and appreciated by Steiner who declared afterwards that this was the best way to conceptualize his musical approach. Coming in to the project early allowed Steiner time to research and obtain legal clearance for the Irish folk songs and hymns he knew Ford would insist upon as he was a stickler for cultural references and authenticity. He would use “Rule Britannia” by Thomas Augustine Arne, “The Rose of Tralee” by Charles William Glover, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “A Minstrel Boy” by Thomas Moore, “The Irish Washerwoman” gig, “The Wearin’ of the Green”, “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” by Thomas Moore, and the Catholic liturgical hymn “Ave Maria”.

For his soundscape Steiner conceived four primary themes. Gypo’s Theme emotes as a dark marcia sinistri driven ever forward by a relentless quarter note rhythm over which plays a minor modal Irish melody. He is not a sympathetic character, being a dullard and a brute, and his theme speaks to this. The string borne Katie’s Theme is rhythmically kindred to Gypo’s, as their fates are entwined, yet it lacks its martial and masculine bearing, instead emoting with descending phrases full of sadness, as her life is a dead end and her man, a loser. Yet at times in the film, when empowered by love, its expression is quite beautiful. The Betrayal Theme is associated with the blood money payment to Gypo for betraying his friend and comrade Frankie. Steiner’s construct employs a tritone and dissonant descent known as the “Devil’s Interval”, which is utilized to unsettle and sow unease as it never resolves. It emotes as four ominous descending notes set against a dissonant chord of betrayal. Lastly, we have the Love Theme for Dan Gallagher and Mary McPhillip, which offers quintessential Steiner romanticism as an exquisite Romance for Strings so full of yearning. Lastly, throughout his career Steiner was criticized for ‘excessive musical synchronization’ of physical movement in film, or as detractors described “Mickey-mousing”. This score is I believe the one where Steiner used this technique the most, be it syncing with a match strike on a lamp post, picking up the £20 reward money off the table, the ascent of a burning “wanted Poster” up the chimney, or the remarkable dripping water in Gypo’s cell. I believe the water dripping scene to be a remarkable achievement given that Steiner spent days with the property manager precisely fine-tuning the water drip rate so as to allow him to sync his music. Afterwards Steiner related;

“I had a certain musical effect which I wanted to use for this. I wanted to catch each one of these drops musically. The property man and I worked days trying to regulate the water tank so it dripped in tempo and I could accompany it. This took a great deal of time and thought because, as you know, 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 award”.

“Main Title” offers a score highlight where Steiner masterfully sets the tone of the film. It opens with Gypo walking along a fog shrouded street at night interspersed with silhouettes of British soldiers on patrol. Steiner supports with a plodding statement of his theme, his fated walk to an ignominious destiny. The march’s pace slows and then quickens with determination as he ascends stairs and the screen displays “A Certain Night in Strife-torn Dublin – 1922”. A diminuendo at 1:13 supports the next statement; “Then Judas repented himself – and cast down the thirty pieces of silver – and departed”. A harp glissando at 1:28 takes us into the film proper as Gypo walks alone the foggy streets at night, with woodwinds taking up his theme. At 1:46 grave strings sound as he stops and looks at a wanted poster offering a £20 for tips that lead to the capture of IRA member Frankie McPhillip. At 2:01 we shift in a flashback to good times where we see Gypo and Frankie having a good time singing in a pub. At 2:11 we shift back ominously to the poster with a grim statement of “Rule Britannia” as the camera focuses on £20 Reward. A harsh orchestral descent at 2:34 supports him tearing down the poster and walking away carried by martial drums.

In “The Rose of Tralee” Gypo stops to listen to a young man singing “The Rose of Tralee” ballad with a fine tenor voice. During the song a harp glissando carries the McPhillip Reward poster in the wind, which fatefully wraps itself around Gypo’s leg, and resists his efforts to dislodge it. The music for this scene is not on the album. “Katie of the Streets” reveals Steiner’s masterful fleshing out of Katie’s and Gypo’s emotions. She is working as a prostitute trying to entice a John. A descending prelude of sadness ushers in her theme at 0:10, which emotes with descending phrases borne by strings tristi. Most interesting is the same wind-blown reward poster wraps itself around her leg alluding that her happiness is what ultimately drives Gypo to betray his mate. A sharp string descent at 0:42 supports the John striking a match on the light post. At 0:48 forlorn horns sound and usher in an aching violin doloroso adorned by a harp glissando as Gypo sees the man make a move on his girl. We swell on a crescendo of anger as he comes to her picks up the man over his head and tosses him hard to the street, supported by a descent motif at 1:09. Her plaintive theme returns full of despair as she asks him what she is to do as she cannot afford pay her rent or eat. She sees the window sign, which says £10 for passage to America supported by a fleeting statement of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. When she asks if he has the £20 at 2:11 we swell on a crescendo of rage as he shouts what do you mean by that! An astute musical insight provided by Steiner that informs us that Gypo is defensive as he is contemplating a betrayal. We close with futility on her theme as she walks away from him, as he is as broke as she is, with no future.

In “Frankie on the Run” we open darkly as Gypo moves on walking the foggy streets and once again we see the wind-blown Wanted Poster for Frankie wrap itself around his leg. As he reads it Katie’s Theme is prominent, which informs us that he is now actively considering betraying his friend for money to pay for Katie and his passage to America. At 0:19 drums militare emote as a walking cadence as a British patrol turns the corner, which elicits Gypo to run supported by frantic flight music. At 0:28 scurrying strings carry his run to hide in the shadows as they pass, yet one remains and holds his flashlight on Frankie’s wanted poster. A string sustain and drums militare stoke tension until the soldier leaves. At 0:48 frantic scurrying strings carry his run away from the patrol. At 1:03 a cautious rendering of his theme joins with Katie’s Theme to carry him into the Dunboy House, a soup kitchen for the poor where he gets a much-needed hot meal. We end on a crescendo of tension where he is startled as Frankie sits down across him at the table. Gypo stares as the reward sign flashes on Frankie, which makes Frankie edgy. Gypo apologizes saying he was startled. He informs him that he was court marshalled and is now thought of as a collaborator. Frankie reminisces about the good times they had together as a team with him being the brains, and Gypo the brawn. After Gypo says his mother’s house is no longer watched by the British, Frankie leaves to visit her, promising to put in a good word for him with Commander Gallagher.

In “Gypo’s Decision” Gypo is left with a blank stare, which Steiner supports with a series of ominous ascending chords, which informs us of his decision to betray Frankie as the image of the £20 Reward appears on the wall. The rising tension is joined at 0:38 by intensifying statements of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as he walks past the store window offering £10/ticket passage to America. Katie’s Theme joins on aggrieved strings informing us of his motivation for betrayal. Tolling bells sound (not on the album) as he walks into the British Army Command office. He states that he is here to claim the £20 reward for Frankie McPhillip and we see him sit dejected as the troops drive out to capture Frankie. Frankie greets his sister Mary and his Mom and begins to eat when the troops arrive and batter down the door. He goes down fighting, killing several before he is killed in front of his mother. Back at the station a phone call reveals Frankie was killed and the Captain tosses Gypo his £20 supported by Betrayal Theme which emotes as ominous four descending notes set against a dissonant chord of betrayal (not on the album). At 1:43 we segue into “The Blind Man” where Gypoe grabs the money and departs out the back door supported by a grieving oboe and the Betrayal Theme. He finds a man and grabs him, fearful of a witness only to discover he is blind. A fragment of Katie’s Theme at 2:02 carries his departure. Yet the blind man with his cane follows supported by the solo oboe lutto with interplay of Katie’s and the Betrayal Themes. An ominous orchestral swell at 2:40 supports the wanted poster reappearing on the now blank wall where he tore it down.

At 3:00 French horns herald “Gypo in the Tavern”, which he enters to buy a bottle of whiskey. The bartender is surprised that he has money to pay for it. As he drinks the Betrayal Theme plagues him every round. An ominous string tremolo joins the Betrayal Theme to create a crucible of painful self-torture as he recalls the last words of his friend Frankie. At 4:36 Katie walks by carried by her theme and is surprised to see him drinking. She comes in and startles him. As she apologizes for being harsh earlier, a loving rendering of her theme supports. Yet the Betrayal Theme enters as she is curious how he suddenly has money. When she asked if someone died and left you a pot of gold, dark strings sound as he snaps at her. It gets worse, when he lies and said he took the money from an American sailor, and she says she will guard his secret as she is no informer, which triggers raging guilt in him borne by an orchestral surge. He starts to throttle her, but stops when called out by the bar tender. As they depart and board a carriage the blind man passes by carried by the oboe emoted Betrayal Theme, which unnerves Gypo who again waves his hand to assure himself that the man is blind. He then realizes he forgot to do something and runs off carried by an aggrieved statement of her theme.

In “The Minstrel Boy” Gypo again comes upon the young man singing on the street, accompanied by a man playing a violin. He sings the ballad “The Minstrel Boy” with his fine tenor voice whose lyrics and melody speak to Gypo’s guilt. The selection of this ballad by Steiner was masterfully conceived and executed. The music for this scene is not on the album. “Wake” reveals Gypo joining Frankie’s family, relatives and fellow IRA comrades at his wake. When he shouts out to his mother he is reprimanded for his poor manners. Music enters as he gets up and coins fall from his pocket supported by the Betrayal Theme. Silence drapes the room as everyone knows he has been broke, and his guilt is written all over his face. A crescendo of anger swells as he picks up the coins and states that he told Frankie not to come here, to which everyone says that they do not suspect him. At 0:43 a beleaguered rendering of his theme carries him to Frankie’s mother. He gives her the coins and departs at 1:07 driven by a furious rendering of his theme. He is stopped by his fellow IRA comrades who are suspicious as he is so defensive. They repeatedly try to convince him to come with them to talk to Commander Gallagher.

The music for the following three scenes is not on the album. “Gypo Meets Gallagher” reveals Bartley and Tommy baiting him to meet with Commander Gallagher. Portentous horns sound as he is brought in. The Betrayal Theme enters as Gallagher places Frankie’s wanted poster into the fireplace with the £20 Reward displayed, as a quote of Gypo’s Theme is heard. Ethereal harp and a violin tremolo sow tension as it is consumed while the men scrutinize Gypo who stares, mesmerized at Frankie’s photo as a harp glissando takes its ashes up the chimney. They task him to find the informer with a promise to reinstate him if he succeeds. They get him drunk and he accuses Mulligan of being the informant. They send him on his way and order him to meet later at the armory. Menacing strings support as Bartley asserts that Gypo is the informer. Horns militare sound as Gallagher orders the team to mobilize, get Mulligan and meet tonight at the Armory. In “King Gypo” he is drunk, flattered by the crowd for decking two men and he treats them all to fish and chips on his tab, foolishly spending nearly half of his remaining £20. Steiner supports the festive crowd in the restaurant with the energetic Irish gig, “The Washerwoman”. As he leaves to walk home drunk, he sings the traditional Irish song “The Wearin’ of the Green”. As he passes the store with £10 passage to America, he grabs his head in painful recognition that his plan to buy Katie and him passage to America is for naught, and all he has done is kill his friend Frankie and squander half the money on whiskey and fish and chips. Her plaintive theme supports his painful regrets as we see a fleeting vision of the two of them sailing to America in class. In “Gypo Crashes the Party” he crashes a private party at a brothel, spends a large portion of his money buying drinks for the house, becomes even more drunk.

In “Mary and Gallagher” Dan comes to her and they kiss, embrace and profess their love for each other. Steiner supports the tender moment with a beautiful harp embellished romance for strings. Gypo’s march enters at 1:04 as Mary upon questioning discloses that Frankie met with Gypo at the Dunboy House and was told by him that it was safe to visit his mom as the British were no longer watching the house. Horns of reckoning sound at 1:17, which seals Gypo’s fate as Gallagher asks her to join him at the tribunal tonight. At 1:40 a last dark utterance of Gypo’s Theme sounds, and then yields to the romance for strings as our two lovers kiss each other goodbye. In “Retrieving Gypo”, men of the IRA go to Mary Betty’s Place to retrieve Gypo who is still partying. We hear them inside singing the traditional Irish ballad “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms”. This song is not on the album.

“Money for Katie” opens with a determined Gypo’s march as Bartley and his men crash the party at 1:00 am and demand that Gypo come with them as agreed to the meeting. On the street a tender Katie’s Theme enters at 0:26 whens she comes to him asking that he return home with her. A crescendo of doom rises as he reminds her of the £20, he won and gives the last of it to her, a revelation the men take in that seals his fate. At 0:43 the Betrayal Theme tolls joined by harp strums as she drops the money. Two aching statements of her theme join as she fears for his life and yells out Gypo! At 1:38 we segue into “Before the Trial” atop the Love Theme, which supports Dan and Mary’s entry into the armory. Trumpeting fanfare (not on the album) supports Commander Gallagher’s arrival and the Love Theme dissipates into sadness as we see in Mary’s eyes the grave purpose to which they have assembled. At 2:07 a prelude by solo cello doloroso ushers in a dispirited martial rendering of the Irish patriotic song “The Wearin’ o’ the Green” as Mary looks at one grave face after another, each bearing the silent anger of betrayal. At 2:41 horns solenne support a view of the three judges, and we conclude on a crescendo dramatico, which propels Gypo’s tumbling down the stairs.

“The Trial” offers a powerful score highlight with masterful writing by Steiner. Gypo is staggering drunk, playful, and clueless as he sits down to the cold stares of all in the room, including the three judges, one of which is the blind man. Gypo sizes up the room, sees that he is in trouble and so stands up to accuse Mulligan of being the informer. Mulligan testifies and offers believable testimony with witnesses that confirm he was not at the police station between 6:00 – 6:30 pm. Mulligan is dismissed with apologies and Gypo placed under withering cross-examination, which peels away the truth. As he sits down cornered and overwhelmed the Betrayal Theme enters with other-worldly statements as Gallagher demands to know where he got the money. He calls out the amounts Gypo gave to each person, including the blind man and Katie, whose theme joins at 0:23. The final total adds up to £20, the amount of Frankie’s reward. A slow, yet inexorable crescendo of pain swells on Gypo’s and the Betrayal Themes, which merge as a single identity, cresting at 0:47 with a descent of regret and shame by strings affanato as he admits to his crime. Sad aching reprises of Katie’s Theme support his devastation, and we close on a dire statement of Gypo’s Theme as Gallagher orders him locked up, as they prepare to execute him.

“Gypo Escapes” reveals him locked in his cell where Steiner executes his water drip motif (not on the album) to perfection using a descending three-note harp phrase followed by a harp strum that synchronizes with droplets of water falling from the ceiling of his cell. In the other room the motif is sustained as the men draws lots to determine who will execute Gypo. Music on the album enters as Gypo uses his great strength to lift of the roof and escape as Denis fires from the cell door. Grave statements of the four-note Betrayal Theme resound as he flees for his life as the IRA, propelled by strings furioso, sets off in hot pursuit. At 0:27 Gypo’s Theme carries him through dark city streets joined by martial drums (not on the album), which support the passing of a British patrol as he hides in the shadows. At 1:01 elegiac horns sound as he imagines Frankie’s wanted poster on the wall. He cries out Frankie, and anguished strings carry his flight with a descent into despair as he enters Katie’s apartment building, carried at 1:21 by a desperate ascent motif as he climbs the stairs. An orchestral clamp at 1:32 supports his entry and slamming of her apartment door in “Katie’s Flat”. He tells her they are after him and the Betrayal Theme enters as he asks her where the £20 is? To which she answers, what £20? He said he informed on Frankie to get the money so they could go to America as desperate strings surge. She is devastated and at 2:12 we flow into loving strings so full of tenderness adorned with harp, as she takes pity on him and attempts to soothe his tortured soul. We hear the raging storm within him dissipate as the hearth fire and her words bring him comfort. At 2:37 her plaintive theme enters as he lays his head on her lap, which she caresses and he states that she is the only one he can trust. We close on a tender diminuendo of harp as she kisses him and tells him that he does not know what he has done. At 3:29 plaintive woodwinds call out as Mary looks through the window and informs Gallagher that she sees her mother heading off to church to say her morning prayers.

“The Plea to Gallagher” offers a powerful emotional score highlight. Our lovers worry over what has happened and a resplendent statement of the Love Theme joins as Mary reassures Dan of her love for him. At 0:37 the moment is lost however atop strings grave when Denis enters and brings in Katie. She pleads desperately to Dan and Mary to spare her beloved Gypo’s life, and her aching theme beseeches them carried by surging strings appassionto for a heart-wrenching performance where music and acting achieve a poignant confluence. It is however to no avail as Commander Gallagher informs her that the entire IRA is compromised and at risk if he lives. At 3:09 we segue into “Messengers of Death” as the three-man IRA hit squad stealthily ascends the stairs of Katie’s apartment building carried by the Betrayal Theme. As they assemble and prepare to strike, Gypo hears them, grabs an iron hearth poker, and moves towards the door atop an intensifying Betrayal Theme.

In “Gypo Shot” Denis shoots the lock, barges in and in pummeled by Gypo, whose superior strength overwhelms the three men. An angry orchestral surge supports, followed by a tumbling descent motif as Gypo and one of the men tumble down the staircase. He escapes through the front door only to find a waiting Bartley, who shoots him four times and then flees. At 0:20 we segue into “Forgiveness” where we see a mortally wounded Gypo willing himself to the church door. The Betrayal Theme swells on a crescendo of pain, a death march as a deafening orchestral blast takes him crashing through the doors and collapsing in the aisle. Mrs. McPhillips turns round in her pew and Gypo stumbles towards her carried by his theme, emoted by a solo violin doloroso full of regret. He collapses by her feet at 1:33 supported by a slow harp glissando, and asks for her forgiveness for informing on Frankie. She without hesitation forgives him saying he did not know what he was doing as organ, chimes and angelic women’s choir begins singing in Latin the Catholic hymn “Ave Maria”. We see in his eyes that his guilt has been assuaged and he stands up, walks to the crucifix, and shouts out; “Frankie! Frankie! Your mother forgives me”!. The chorus swells as he collapses and dies, bringing the film to an end.

I would like to commend James d’Arc and Brigham Young University Film Music Archives Production for this magnificent 3 CD box set; Max Steiner: The RKO Years 1929 – 1936. This long sought Holy Grail for collectors is a godsend and greatly appreciated. The score restoration from the archival sources was remarkable and although the CDs do not achieve the current qualitative audio standards heard for new 21st century recordings, it nevertheless delivers a wonderful stereo listening experience that in no way diminishes Steiner’s music.

Steiner came in early to the project, which allowed him time to research and obtain legal clearance for the Irish folk songs and hymns he knew Ford would insist upon as he was a stickler for cultural references and authenticity. The choices made and their placement in the film were spot on in establishing Irish cultural sensibilities and auras. For his soundscape Steiner composed four primary themes. Gypo’s Theme perfectly captured the persona of this tragic dullard and a brute, offering a dark marcia sinistri driven ever forward by a relentless quarter note rhythm over which plays a minor modal Irish melody. The string borne Katie’s Theme is rhythmically kindred to Gypo’s, as their fates are entwined, yet it lacks its martial and masculine bearing, instead emoting with descending phrases full of sadness, as her life is a dead end and her man, a loser. The Betrayal Theme is associated with the blood money payment to Gypo for betraying his friend and comrade Frankie. It plagues him throughout the film, speaking to self-torture by his conscience, and festering feelings of guilt and shame. Steiner’s construct was ingenious, employing a tritone and dissonant descent known as the “Devil’s Interval”, which is utilized to unsettle and sow unease as it never resolves. Lastly, a hallmark of Steiner’s style was musical synchronization to physical movement in film. His conception and execution of his Dripping Water Droplet Motif was simply remarkable.

This early career Steiner score was very effective in enhancing John Ford’s story-telling. In scene after scene a wonderful synergy was achieved, which I believe allowed Ford to realize his vision. I consider this Academy Award winning score a gem in Steiner’s canon, a masterwork of the early Golden Age, and highly recommend this superb 3 CD box set for your collection. I would hope that Brigham Young University Film Music Archives Production consider a reissue of this magnificent product, which offers eleven selections from vintage 1930s Steiner scores for new generations of collectors. Until that day, purchase at a considerable cost can only be made in secondary markets.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to an eleven-minute suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGUUJkm8Z7M

Buy the Quiet Man soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:53)
  • Katie of the Streets (2:43)
  • Frankie on the Run (1:37)
  • Gypo’s Decision/The Blind Man/Gypo in the Tavern (5:39)
  • The Wake (1:15)
  • Mary and Gallagher (2:15)
  • Money for Katie/Before the Trial (3:02)
  • The Trial (1:32)
  • Gypo Escapes/Katie’s Flat (3:43)
  • The Plea to Gallagher/Messengers of Death (4:01)
  • Gypo Shot/Forgiveness (2:49)

Running Time: 31 minutes 00 seconds

Brigham Young University Film Music Archives Production FMAMS-110 (1935/2002)

Music composed and conducted by Max Steiner. Orchestrations by Maurice de Packh and Bernard Kaun. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Max Steiner. Album produced by James d’Arc.

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