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THE INFORMER (1935)

Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) is a shadow of a man. The first shot of John Ford’s THE INFORMER (1935) has the shadow of the hulking Irishman crawling up a wall on a foggy Irish evening during the great rebellion. He is a shadow because he has been “court marshaled” by the IRA and is now homeless and without a job. When he comes across a “Wanted” poster for old IRA buddy Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), he angrily tears it off the wall. As Gypo makes his way down the darkened alley way, the poster carried by a gust of wind, wraps itself around his legs. He can’t break free. Eventually, it will be blown down the street, but we are haunted by the feeling that Gypo is about to do something he will regret (despite the merits of turning in a cold blooded killer). He meets his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame), on a corner of this same street. Poverty has forced her into prostitution. Everyone in the film is tormented by money – the lack of it and the desire to get some quickly. If she only had twenty-two pounds, she could, perhaps, escape to America with Gypo. It just so happens that twenty-two pounds is exactly the reward offered for Frankie’s arrest. We are now certain: Gypo will turn his friend and comrade over to the police.

But Gypo has a kind heart. He was thrown out of the IRA because he refused to kill a man marked for death by the Republicans. “Not in cold blood”, he explains to Frankie as they eat at a soup kitchen later in the film. He is just kind enough to help Katie find escape, but hungry enough to turn in an old friend.

Frankie is concerned about his mother, as are all Irish-Catholic boys. He has not seen her since he first went on the lam – and she must be so worried. Coppers and British soldiers are everywhere, having an oppressive effect on the occupied citizenry of Ireland. When Gypo approaches the police station, he raises his hands in the air. “No weapon here” he seems to be telling the constabulary, and this is a standard action taken by all Irishmen as they approach British soldiers and the police – most of whom are loyal to the Crown.

After betraying Frankie to the powers that be, Gypo sits by a loudly ticking clock in the police station, his head bowed. Ford’s low angle here emphasizes Gypo’s shame, and as this scene dissolves to Mrs. Mcphillip’s kitchen clock (also ticking loudly), the high angle seems to imply impending doom for Frankie. His time on earth is ticking away. Gypo leaves the police station by the back door, barbed wire visible in the foreground. Both men will soon be trapped. A blind man (D’Arcy Corrigan), who has been standing outside the police station, follows Gypo down the street – a symbol of his conscience and (as the filmmakers see it) his own moral blindness. Frankie sneaks into his Mother’s house by the kitchen entrance, and is joyfully greeted by his Mother (Una O’Connor) and his sister, Mary (Heather Angel). But that clock is still ticking.

Frankie is killed in the ensuing shootout as police surround Mrs. McPhillip’s home, and the sad disintegration of what remains of Gypo’s life begins. Alcohol facilitates this fall. Booze is prominent throughout and Gypo imbibes every chance he gets. When he meets Katie at an eatery, a bottle of whiskey separates them in the frame, dividing the screen in two. Strong drink will literally come between them. When Gypo is called to the hideout of Dan Gallagher (Preston Foster) the IRA head, and ordered to find the informer (and possibly be reinstated as a member in good standing) the men stand around a table set with bottles of alcohol and shot glasses. Gypo helps himself to the spirits and grows increasingly inebriated as the scene goes on. The broad comedy is accentuated when Gypo, given the ultimatum/offer, does what amounts to a “spit take” in amazement. Drunk out of his mind, he fingers a fellow named Mulligan (Donald Meek) as the informer, hatching an absurd story about Frankie impregnating Mulligan’s sister, creating the motive for betrayal. After Gypo leaves the hideout, one of Gallagher’s men reveals his suspicions that he is the informer.

Becoming more and more paranoid (and with good reason), Gypo spends his reward money on booze, on a handout for the blind man (who is still following him), on fish and chips for a crowd that dubs him “King Gypo” after he assaults a cop in his haze and – most movingly – on an English woman who needs money to get back to London. The last two episodes are especially ironic, considering the Irish hatred at the time for the Crown and all things English (fish and chips was a popular English meal at the time). The suspicious IRA men have been following him, watching – and counting the money as he spends it.

Soon Gypo and Mulligan find themselves dragged off to a Republican trial. Mary, who is in love with Gallagher, is the only woman attending. And he is there. The man who has “seen” so much – the blind man. Freaking out upon spotting the blind man, Gypo once again points to Mulligan who is exonerated by his faith in God:It seems he was at prayer in a chapel when Frankie was betrayed. And his only sister has lived in Boston for years. All of the money Gypo has spent is recalled by the men who followed him. It comes to twenty-two pounds. He breaks under the pressure and confesses. The men draw straws to decide on Gypo’s executioner. He escapes to Katie’s home, but not before taking a slug in the back. Katie goes to Gallagher and begs for him to call off the execution. There is none of the mercy showed by Gypo when he was called on to kill. Katie gives away Gypo’s location, and after another gun battle in which Gypo is grievously wounded, he escapes to the church. Staggering down the aisle, he falls before Mrs. McPhillip who is kneeling in prayer at the foot of a large crucifix. Gathering enough strength, he then kneels before Frankie’s Mother and the cross and begs forgiveness from her and – it appears – Christ. She does forgive him in an emotional exchange that marks the highlights of the careers of McLaglen (his performance garnered him an Oscar) and O’Connor. In his final moments, he has atoned for his sins by submitting to the two pillars of Irish-Catholic life – Motherhood and the church. Triumphant, he stands with his arms outstretched as if he were Christ on the cross. “Frankie, Your Mother forgives me!” This physical gesture and the fact that he addresses the cross as he says this implies that both Frankie and Gypo are Christ-like figures themselves, with all the suffering of the world on their shoulders. And now there is peace for both of them as Gypo falls dead before the crucifix.

If the film has a real flaw it is that this somber spiritual drama veers too often into broad comedy, creating an incongruous atmosphere. But THE INFORMER met the needs of depression era audiences – the need for an occassional laugh, and to observe the lives of people who were even worse off than themselves.

CREDITS: Produced and Directed by John Ford. Written by Dudley Nichols. Based on a story by Liam O’Flaherty. Photographed by Joseph H. August. Edited by George Hively. Music by Max Steiner. With: Victor McLaglen, Margot Grahame, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Wallace Ford, Una O’Connor, Donald Meek, D’Arcy Corrigan and Francis Ford.

June 19, 2013 Posted by | "the troubles", 1930's cinema, classic cinema, film directors, film drama | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment