The IRA on Film and Television analyzes two classic films associated with the Irish Republican Army – John Ford’s The Informer (RKO, 1935) and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (Two Cities Films, 1947) – which do not actually name the IRA and only casually touch on the underlying conflict. Both are largely apolitical melodramas that use the backdrop of the Irish “Troubles” to present allegorical morality tales to avoid controversy and achieve universal appeal. In essence, both movies are dark crime thrillers that follow the last hours of an impaired and isolated hero hunted down in the cold wet streets of a city at night. Ford’s Gypo, wanted for betraying a murderer to the police, goes on a drunken romp through Dublin that could just as easily occur in Prohibition-era Chicago. Reed’s Johnny, wounded during a robbery, endures an anguished journey through the alleys of Belfast that visually presages Harry Lime’s shadowy flight through the sewers of Vienna in his 1949 film The Third Man.
John Ford, whose cousin was an IRA leader, was determined to bring Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel to the screen. With a limited budget that excluded major stars, large sets, or location shooting, Ford decided to focus on the “look” and “feel” of a more intimate film. Great attention was paid to lighting, camera angles, and double exposures. Ford labored on the script with Dudley Nichols, dictating scenes, correcting drafts, and continually hectoring Nichols for his lack of understanding of the Irish.
The final script, the fog, low camera angles, and Max Steiner’s haunting score worked to make The Informer a memorable film. For all its drama and attention to detail, however, The Informer provides audiences with no understanding of the Irish Troubles or the goal of the unnamed organization. The group has more in common with a criminal mob. Gypo is gunned down in the streets not unlikea character in an American gangster film. British censors insisted on cutting political references, so that even the word “Ireland” was repeatedly deleted.
Taking place in postwar Belfast, Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out is far more depoliticized. The protagonist Johnny McQueen is more mob boss than revolutionary. He gives no speeches to crowds. He issues no proclamations. He never confronts or even identifies the opposition. Nowhere does he inspire his followers with a vision of what their activities will achieve or articulate the injustices he seeks to remedy. He is simply the leader of a gang planning a robbery, suggesting that the “illegal” organization is criminal rather than political. The man he kills is not a government official or uniformed representative of an oppressive regime or occupying army, but a civilian employee of a linen mill. The crime that puts the entire film in motion could just as easily happened in Newark or Naples. Johnny is chased not by soldiers but policemen, wanted not as a rebel threatening to overthrow a regime but a common felon.
In a 1947 interview, Carol Reed defended his decision to steer the film away from politics, stating, “What counts is the story value and characterization . . . . I believe that a director has no right to inflict his amateur politics and opinions on an audience.”
Reed gave his audience a deeply metaphorical tale, laden with symbolism, and full of thought-provoking debates on a range of subjects. But the actions of the unnamed organization and the conflict that created it remain unexplored.