Robert Montgomery, 1947
Starring: Robert Montgomery, Wanda Hendrix, Thomas Gomez
Lucky Gagin takes a bus to San Pablo, New Mexico and is hot on the trail of Frank Hugo, a gangster who murdered Gagin’s best friend, Shorty. He has accidentally arrived during the local festival and all the hotel rooms are booked up. Despite Gagin’s icy demeanor, mistrust, and determination to be alone, he reluctantly befriends a hard-drinking, jovial Mexican named Pancho. Pancho allows him to take shelter at his merry-go-round. Gagin is also followed and cared for by a strange Mexican girl, Pila, and an FBI agent tries to persuade him to stay away from Hugo before it is too late…
Based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel of the same name and adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, Ride the Pink Horse is an oft-neglected but unique take on film noir. Though it has some of film noir’s typical elements – an isolated anti-hero suffering from a serious case of post-war disillusionment, crime, corruption, gangsters, and a femme fatale in the form of Frank Hugo’s double-crossing girlfriend (played by The Beast with Five Fingers’ Andrea King) – the film shines thanks to its more uncommon elements.
To begin with, the New Mexico setting is wonderfully used by director and star Robert Montgomery. It features a poor, rural town in the full swing of the local carnival, Fiestas de Santa Fe (actually the oldest in the U.S.), complete with costumed revelers crowding the streets. Effigies are burned, sweaty couples dance to Mexican-style music, and an antique merry-go-round is the film’s centerpiece. The real 65-year-old Taos merry-go-round that inspired Hughes' novel was allegedly shipped to Universal and used as part of the film’s set. It helps inspire the fairytale-like tone of the film, which rests beneath layers of violence and gruff masculinity.
In a mythic/fairytale twist, Gagin has three helpers that support him on his journey and literally help to bring him back from death. The first is Bill Retz (Art Smith of In a Lonely Place and Letter from an Unknown Woman), the paternal, stolid FBI agent trying to keep on the right side of the law. Second is Pancho (Thomas Gomez of Key Largo), the jovial owner of a carousel who represents male camaraderie and invites Gagin to sleep near the fantastically-colored wooden horses. Finally, Pila (Wanda Hendrix of Prince of Foxes), the young girl who follows him throughout the film, is presented as mysterious and otherworldly, a being presumably in need of neither sleep nor food until Gagin begins to domesticate her. Though more typical noir stock characters interact with him and offer him help throughout the course of the film, he instinctively chooses the three outcasts and is ultimately rewarded for this. Their often unexplained loyalty is what helps transforms him from a misanthropic “man with no place,” emotion, or hope for the future into a more stable, productive member of society who survives a carnivalesque descent into the underworld.
Actor Robert Montgomery was unceremoniously slid into role of director after he returned from a stint in the Navy. He had a role in John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945), but after Ford’s on-set injury towards the end of production, Ford insisted he finish shooting the film. This soon led him to Lady in the Lake (1947), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name. Montgomery starred in and directed the film, choosing to shoot his role mainly in the first person. His dialogue and voice-over is nearly constant, but he is shown only is briefly glimpses of a mirror. I honestly found Lady in the Lake intolerable, which is why I didn’t review it, but it obviously allowed Montgomery to stretch his legs enough that he wound up with Ride the Pink Horse.
This is undoubtedly the best film in Montgomery’s career as a director and, perhaps unusually, plenty of room is given to his costars. Wanda Hendrix is solid as Pila and it’s a shame her career didn’t further take off. Pila’s obsession with and devotion to Gagin is largely inexplicable, but her otherworldliness makes it more believable. Their budding romance never develops to the physical level, adding an air of tension and frustration that works well for the film. Their abrupt, almost stubborn parting is genuinely painful. Gagin’s only friend, Pancho, is played with gusto by Thomas Gomez (Key Largoi), who deservedly received a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars for the role.
Ride the Pink Horse will not be for everyone. It is a stylized story of human despair, but it is somewhat more realistic than many of its hard-hitting noir brethren. Though there are moments of violence in many a film noir, when Gagin is beaten, knifed, and nearly killed he never really recovers and wanders the rest of the film in an almost hallucinatory daze, desperate and close to death. The ending is a mixture of hopeful and frustrating: Gagin never gets a violent, bloody revenge, but instead turns to the law for help. And though he has formed a close bond with Pila, he leaves town abruptly, ready to begin the next chapter of his now more hopeful life elsewhere. The film comes recommended, and though it is not currently available on DVD, you can find it floating around online.