Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

*. Ride the Pink Horse is often described as an oddity, so let’s talk about some of what’s odd about it.
*. The title screen is odd. “Universal International Presents Robert Montgomery” fills one screen, followed in the next by “as Lucky Gagin in Ride the Pink Horse.” The title shares the screen with the main character’s name, and in fact the character’s name is in print twice as large as that of the title. This is odd because (1) we never hear Montgomery’s character referred to as “Lucky” in the film, and (2) the name “Lucky Gagin” could hardly have been a selling point since it was just something they made up. In the novel by Dorothy Hughes he’s called Sailor.
*. Lucky Gagin’s romantic interest is a girl played by 18-year-old Wanda Hendrix. In the book the character, Pila, was 14. But is it a romantic interest? On the DVD commentary noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini describe their relationship as “borderline taboo.” In the film the character of Pancho dismisses Pila as being “too skinny” for Gagin on a couple of occasions, without making any reference to her age. This is a girl who still likes to ride carousels! Such talk between men in their forties struck me as a little uncomfortable, especially given the fact that Gagin is the rich American come to throw money around Pila’s dusty hometown. Odd doesn’t quite cover this. Or the way she’s cast as a maternal figure, nursing Gagin with a bottle after he’s wounded. That’s some weird iconography.
*. Another oddity: guns are brandished but I don’t believe we ever see (or hear) one being fired. This despite the fact that in the novel the bad guy (an American senator named Douglass, who is a nastier piece of work than he is here, having arranged his wife’s murder) is shot by Sailor at the end. Could anything be more anti-climactic than the way Retz arrives at the last minute to save Gagin and Pila, and then just gets the all-important cheque from Gagin?
*. But the ending is even stranger than this. For one thing, it’s upbeat, to the point where Imogen Sara Smith (interviewed on the Criterion DVD) is led to consider the movie a sort of anti-noir. On the commentary track Silver says how it’s “very atypical of how one expects any film noir to resolve itself.” Then add the fact that the final dialogue is all in Spanish. Throughout the movie Spanish dialogue gets used, without subtitles or translations, quite a bit. But to wrap things up with Pila telling the story of her adventures to her friends in Spanish as Retz and Gagin walk away is weird.
*. Pauline Kael found the title “inappropriate.” That’s one way of putting it. Read literally, it only refers to a rather insignificant part in the movie. But it also has a more suggestive connotation that I don’t know if they were aware of.
*. Sticking with Kael, here is her take: “One of a kind; no one in his right mind would imitate it.” In particular, Kael called out its broken English, and not just that coming from the actors playing Mexicans. “Robert Montgomery . . . speaks in a tough-guy lingo that isn’t just broken — it’s smashed.” And this leads me to what I think may be the oddest thing about Ride the Pink Horse.
*. If you looked at the talent involved I think you would be pretty sure of one thing going in, that the script would be a gem. As noted, it’s based on a novel by Dorothy Hughes, a more than capable author of tales like this (she’s probably best known for In a Lonely Place). Producer Joan Harrison I believe wrote a draft of a screenplay, and she had a solid track record as a screenwriter too, having worked on a number of Hitchcock’s films (including Rebecca). The screenplay itself though was credited to Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, who were pretty much Hollywood all-stars. What could go wrong?
*. The odd thing is, I think it’s the script that lets Ride the Pink Horse down. Montgomery’s direction is fine, and even accomplished in many ways, ably assisted by the photography of Russell Metty (who would go on to do Touch of Evil). Montgomery makes a decent noir hero, projecting both cynicism (but not too much) and vulnerability (but only in an unfair fight). The supporting cast is capable. Thomas Gomez actually got an Oscar nomination for playing Pancho, which is hard to believe given the role. Fred Clark is very good as the hard-of-hearing villain Frank Hugo, but why bother with his hearing-aid contraption? It’s never used for any kind of plot purpose, and surely something could have been made out of the fact that he’s deaf.
*. But the story itself is of little interest, and at least to my ear it doesn’t have much of the seasoning you’d expect from Lederer and Hecht in the dialogue department. In terms of its basic structure I’ve already mentioned how it just sort of peters out at the end, with the hero semi-conscious and an arrest of the villain being made as we fade to black. The character of Marjorie, who had some potential, disappears. Gagin’s plan never adds up. It struck me as kind of dopey to begin with, and then as things went along I became unsure what his goal was. To get some money or to avenge Shorty? If revenge, why doesn’t he just kill Hugo? If it’s money, it’s kind of strange that he wants twice what Shorty was asking when Hugo is willing to pay him ten times as much.
*. To be honest, I don’t get the love for this one. It got a Criterion release, leading to it being discussed as some kind of lost treasure or at least underappreciated. Call it the Criterion effect. Despite its many quirks, however, it’s a pretty tame noir with a pagan-Catholic Mexican flavour (accompanied by a lot of unquestioned, casual racism on the part of our hero Gagin), some nice long takes, and not much else to set it apart from a mass of similar films. Not a bad film but not a must-see except for genre fans.

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