John Ford had a hard time getting this film made, as the protagonist, Gypo Nolan, is a terrible person. About the only good thing you can say about him is that he’s stupid, but even that doesn’t excuse the things he does. Down on his luck, kicked out of the IRA because he disobeyed orders, he needs some dough to take his girlfriend to America. The fare is £10. The British are offering a reward of £20 for information leading to the capture of Frankie McPhillip. Gypo peaches to the Black and Tans, and Frankie is killed in a shoot-out. He manages to spend his way through the money in about four hours of carousing, buying drinks for the house, fish & chips for everybody on the street, handing £5 to an Englishwoman he’s never met. He might as well have used to money to make a neon sign that flashed INFORMER!!! with a big arrow pointing at him, and carted it around Dublin. He accuses an innocent man of being the informer. When a trial is held, Gypo is easily destroyed and convicted. He escapes, and with his usual finesse manages to stay alive about an hour before he is gunned down.
Frankie’s sister pleads with her lover, head of the IRA, to spare poor stupid Gypo’s life. The soldiers are not portrayed as blood-thirsty maniacs, they are not eager to kill this idiot for his crime, but they point out that he knows too much. If the police get their hands on him it will take about ten minutes to have him blabbing the names of everyone he knows. In the one scene I found a little hard to swallow, even Frankie’s mother is willing to forgive him when he staggers into a church with four bullets in him.
This film is glorious to look at. Ford was influenced by the German Expressionists of the previous decade, and it is full of shadows and light and fog. In today’s terms it may be a little heavy-handed, dramatically, but not overly so. It all revolves around Victor McLaglen’s towering performance as Gypo, for which he won an Oscar. Gypo is a huge man, quick to anger, quick to forgive. His every emotion is written large on his face. Poker players speak of a “tell,” some mannerism that reveals the strength or weakness of your opponents hand. With Gypo, he always takes off his hat and throws it on the floor when he’s about to lie. As if he needed any more tells; his whole life is a tell. With Gypo, what you see is what you get. He’s the last person in the world who should have tried something as devious as informing.
Hollywood Legend: True or not true, I don’t know … they say that John Ford told McLaglen they wouldn’t be shooting the trial scene the next day. McLaglen promptly went out and drank all night, as Ford knew he would. He came to the set and found they were shooting the scene, and he had to work with a massive hangover, which probably made his sweaty, trembling performance a little easier.