The Informer (1935)

“Isn’t there a man here who can tell me why I did it?”

Set in Dublin in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, John Ford’s early masterpiece tells the story of the last night of an insignificant little traitor. Gypo Nolan, played by the ex-boxer Victor McLaglen, is down on his luck. Thrown out of the IRA for refusing to execute a captured member of the Black and Tans, yet not trusted by the British authorities, he’s unemployable, hungry, desperate, unable even to afford a bottle of whiskey to help him drown his sorrows. Gypo, and the Irish people, have been reduced by poverty, and by the British occupation, to the status of barely articulate brutes.

John Ford’s Dublin is beautifully lit, shrouded in fog, darkly atmospheric, lyrical. Frankie McPhillip, an IRA militant, “comes in with the fog” to visit his mother and sister, planning to “leave with the fog” the next morning. He never makes it out alive. That evening, Gypo Nolan, wandering aimlessly through the streets of the city, has spotted a poster. “Wanted for Murder,” it says. “Frankie McPhillip, 20 Pounds Reward.” He runs into Lizzie, his girlfriend, a prostitute who dreams of getting out of Ireland and going to the United States. The fare, ominously, is 10 pounds per person.

Later, Frankie McPhillip, having just evaded a British patrol, briefly ducks into a cheap restaurant called “Dunboy House.” There he meets Gypo. McPhillip, like any wanted man on the run, is happy to meet an old friend. He has no idea that Gypo has spent most of the day consumed with desire for the reward money. They part. Frankie goes to see his mother and sister. Gypo goes to the British police. Frankie McPhillip is wanted for “murder,” but the portrait that John Ford paints of the McPhillips family his very brief visit home makes it clear that he’s no criminal. He’s an Irish patriot who has killed British soldiers during the fight for his country’s independence. After learning of his location, the Black and Tans storm Frankie McPhillip’s house and shoot him dead. Like the narrator in The Clash song Guns of Brixton, he decides to go down fighting.

When they kick at your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun

The Clash — Guns of Brixton

Gypo Nolan’s fate is almost a foregone conclusion. He has exiled himself from his people for 20 pieces of silver. What he does with those 20 pieces of silver pushes The Informer into the company of great existential works of art like Albert Camus’ The Stranger. For one evening, Gypo Nolan gets to be as big a man socially as he is physically. Victor McLaglen is a hulking 6’4” strongman who once fought Jack Johnson in an exhibition boxing match. He goes to a pub and buys a whole bottle of whiskey. He gives a pound note to a homeless man. He treats the neighborhood to fish and chips. He goes to a whorehouse and gives an English girl 5 pounds so she can get back to London. By the time he finds Katie, he doesn’t even have the 20 pounds to buy two tickets to New York. He has left a trail of evidence for the IRA that all but guarantees his execution.

“Isn’t there a man here who can tell me why I did it?”

Like Camus’ Meursault, however, Gypo Nolan has no idea why he turned traitor, or tries to add one sin to another by accusing an innocent, churchgoing man named Mulligan of being the informer. John Ford has masterfully sketched out a city full of people so mired in poverty that a mere 20 pounds can tempt a man to turn his best friend over to a colonial occupier. To be able to buy a bottle of whiskey, to be able to order a round of fish and chips, to be able to give a homeless man a one pound note, these are usually unimaginable luxuries for a poor soul like Gypo Nolan.

The bottle of whiskey, as welcome as it is, is not the reason he turned Frankie McPhillip over to the Black and Tans. For the past year, Gypo has been living in a state of limbo. Neither British, or an Irish patriot, he has been more alone than any man should be, an exile, not only among his own people, but also among the colonial occupier. The contemptuous manner with which the British police captain pushes the 20 pounds across the table, the payment for Frankie McPhillip’s betrayal, is a masterpiece of narrative economy. John Ford understands the contempt the ruling class feels for their opportunistic stooges. Gypo Nolan isn’t a man. He’s a worm.

By betraying Frankie McPhillip, however, by taking his place in the history of his little corner of Ireland as the local Judas, Gypo Nolan becomes human, a sinner eligible for God’s grace. The IRA court sentences him to death. They draw straws to determine who will carry out the execution, with the man who draws the short straw, ironically, putting himself in the same place Nolan had been the year before. Nolan escapes, battering through the wooden roof of his jail cell, a cornered animal running on pure adrenaline. But Gypo Nolan isn’t trying to get out of Dublin. That would be hopeless. He’s only trying to get to the local church to ask forgiveness. He makes it. He finds Frankie McPhillip’s mother, praying. Mrs. McPhillip, played by the great character actor Una O’Connor gives him her absolution. Forgive him Lord, he didn’t know what he was doing. The IRA, hot on Nolan’s trail, shoots him dead, but not before he can get off his last words.

“Frankie,” he shouts. “Did you hear that? She forgave me.”

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