John Ford‘s The Informer was my first wake-up film — the first adult drama that showed me movies could reach right inside and get you where it hurts or haunts, and could be about more, a lot more, than just laughs, excitement, color and spectacle.
It was my first heavy-duty, moral-undertow drama, all about grimness and guilt and poverty and downish atmospheres — the very first that presented a pathetic main character (Victor McLaglen‘s Gypo Nolan) and said, “Yes, obviously this guy’s a child, a drunk, a blunderer, not in the least bit clever…but can you find it in your heart to forgive him? Or are you the hard, judgmental type?”
I was nine or ten when I first saw The Informer, and my response was pretty much “well, yeah, I feel sorry for Gypo, I guess…but forgiveness is a bridge too far. How do you forgive a guy for betraying Frankie McPhillip, a friend, in exchange for a lousy 20 pounds?”
Even then I was having trouble with Gypo or more precisely drunks, and I barely knew anything. Well, my paternal grandfather had a mild drinking problem, but it wasn’t that noticable until his wife died.
I saw The Informer again sometime in the early aughts, and this time I felt even more annoyed by Gypo’s behavior. He doesn’t even have the discipline to hide his shame. Instead he goes straight into a pub and starts buying drinks for everyone, which immediately ignites the suspicions of the Irish Republican Army guys (Joe Sawyer, Preston Foster).
Eventually he’s found out, tried and marked for execution, and I’m telling you I agreed with the IRA. There’s no room for a big dumb oaf in an urban warfare situation. Gypo’s too much of a stumbling-around lush to be trusted. Kill him and be done with it.
But that final scene after he’s been shot in the gut, bleeding to death…that scene still gets me. When Gypo stumbles into a church and finds Frankie’s mother and says with that pleading, wounded-ox voice, “Twas I who informed on your son, Mrs. McPhillip…forgive me.” And the poor woman does for some reason, and then comforts him with “you didn’t know what you were doin’.” Gypo clutches his side, calls out to the dead Frankie, drops to the church floor and dies.
If I’d been Mrs. McPhillip I would have said, “You’ll get no forgiveness from me, Gypo. And from the looks of you, you won’t be needing any soon. Just let go…just let go. There’s nothin’ more for it, Gypo. Just go to sleep.”