Since the library is shut down for two weeks, I've got a bit of time on my hands, so I've decided to recycle some reviews from my previous blog (which, I was surprised to learn, goes all the way back to 2004). Stay tuned. There will be more!
Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
Directed by Robert Montgomery
Produced by Joan Harrison
Screenplay by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer
Based on the novel Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes
Cinematography by Russell Metty
Edited by Ralph Dawson
Music by Frank Skiller
(1:41) Criterion Blu-ray
A man named Gagin (Robert Montgomery) steps off a Greyhound bus into the small town of San Pablo, New Mexico, looks around, takes several tentative steps, and discreetly transfers a gun from his briefcase to his suit jacket pocket. The locals – Latino Americans and Native Americans – are preparing for the town’s annual fiesta, but Gagin has no interest in these people or their celebration. He’s here for another reason: to find a man named Frank Hugo, the man who killed Gagin’s friend.
Gagin is abrupt with everyone he meets, curt, condescending and rude. A teenage girl named Pila (Wanda Hendrix) offers him an Indian charm, but Gagin dismisses it and her, telling the girl he’s not buying any souvenirs. Pila informs him it’s not a souvenir and she doesn’t want any money for it. It’s for protection.
Superstitious charm or not, Gagin’s going to need some help. He doesn’t even have a place to sleep. (All the hotels are booked for the fiesta.) The cards are hopelessly stacked against him, but to make matters even worse, Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), the man Gagin suspects killed his friend, is a very big man in town with money, resources, connections, and men guarding him constantly.
Some potential help arrives in the form of a man named Retz (Art Smith), an FBI agent who’s been shadowing Gagin and also has an interest in getting something on Hugo. Retz knows that Gagin is a former serviceman and asks him to work with him to bring Hugo down. Gagin refuses, dishing out snide, sneering comments to Retz that he’s no flag-waver. Retz replies, “You’re not a bad fella. You’re like the rest of the boys, you’re all cussed-up because you fought a war for three years and got nothing out of it but dangled ribbons.” (For more on the term “cussed up,” I refer you to Mr. Eddie Muller.
Post-war disillusionment from returning servicemen is a common theme in film noir, but Ride the Pink Horse gives it a different twist by placing it in New Mexico. Although we’re still in the United States, it feels as if we’re not, with a location where life is slower and the effects of post-war problems are more subdued. Gagin feels a sense of disgust for the locals until he begins to encounter more tourists from larger cities, people converging on the small town for the fiesta. Although he’s not here for the celebration, he begins to see that the society he’s most familiar with maybe isn’t so attractive and that the locals may have something more substantial to offer.
Ride the Pink Horse is an atypical noir in that it is not set in a standard noir location and that the plot is fairly straightforward: none of the usual labyrinthine story elements are found here. Yet there’s something else very different from what we typically see in film noir. What strikes me most is the way two complete strangers notice Gagin, see that he’s clearly out of his element, needing help and protection, and do something about it. Neither Pila nor Pancho know Gagin when they first meet him and the film really gives us no reason as to why they want to help him. After all, he’s a stranger, he’s not one of them. They aren’t in it for the money, either. Yet as a Christian I can’t get around the fact that both Pila and Pancho are displaying a very Christlike attitude toward Gagin. They know he has money, but never seem interested in it. There’s something about their genuine desire to help and their sacrifices for him, expecting nothing in return, that shatters what we normally see in film noir (and in life). Part of this is showing Gagin that his post-war disillusionment does not reach everywhere and that there are places in the world – and people in it – who grant mercy and grace where none is asked for or perhaps even deserved.
Ride the Pink Horse contains a very good performance from Montgomery, and excellent performances from Thomas Gomez (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, the first time an Latino-American actor was nominated) and Wanda Hendrix, whose career consisted mostly of B-pictures, and whose work sadly takes a backseat to the fact that she was briefly married to Audie Murphy.
Ride the Pink Horse also brings together two people whose lives and careers you should explore. Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote the source novel, is finally beginning to be recognized for the talented writer she was, with reissues of several of her novels, including In a Lonely Place (1947), The Expendable Man (1963), and many others.
The film’s producer, Joan Harrison, is one of the most important women ever to land in Hollywood. A new book about her is out now, from Chicago Review Press, Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock by Christina Lane.
Just a few years ago, Ride the Pink Horse was notoriously difficult to find. Thankfully, Criterion has released the film on DVD and Blu-ray, including an interview with Imogen Sara Smith, author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, a Lux Radio Theater adaptation, and a commentary featuring film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. The film also recently played on TCM’s Noir Alley. Do not miss this one, especially if you’re a film noir fan.