Monday, August 29, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

RIDE THE PINK HORSE is a film I wanted to love, as it's a film noir directed by and starring Robert Montgomery, whom I admire tremendously. Instead I found myself watching this meandering, somewhat mystical film with a detached admiration, intrigued and interested, but not emotionally engaged.

The screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer was based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. The film has a bit of the feel of Hecht's ANGELS OVER BROADWAY (1940) in that it unites disparate characters and focuses on the kindness of strangers as part of an otherwise somewhat murky plotline.

RIDE THE PINK HORSE is the story of Lucky Gagin (Montgomery), a rough-hewn, run-down WWII veteran -- an archetypal film noir character if ever there was one. Gagin arrives in a poor New Mexican town looking for Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), the man responsible for the death of Gagin's pal Shorty. Gagin is out for...blackmail? revenge?

Kindly FBI agent Bill Retz (Art Smith) is keeping a close eye on both Gagin and Hugo. Gagin is befriended by a genial carousel owner, Pancho (Thomas Gomez), and he's also shadowed by a mysterious young Mexican girl, Pila (Wanda Hendrix). Pancho and Pila's almost instant attachment to Lucky is one of the film's puzzling aspects.

Montgomery's Gagin, who speaks in a manner resembling Joe Pendleton, has no background other than the war. For much of the film it's not even quite clear if Gagin is a hero or a small-time crook, although thanks to the goodwill Montgomery has with the audience, as well as the trust of Pancho and Pila, the viewer is on his side from the beginning. The audience sympathy intensifies when Gagin is knifed and spends the rest of the movie staggering in pain, trying to complete...what?

The film presents a unique contrast, insofar as the story in the foreground is developed slowly and quietly, while in the background there's a raucous fiesta going on for much of the film's running time. The movie has a great sense of mood, including location shooting in Santa Fe and the extensive use of Spanish; when Spanish-speaking characters are talking among themselves, they speak their native language, which gives the film a feeling of authenticity.

I have a feeling this is a movie which might play better the second time around, as so much of the film's running time is spent simply trying to understand the characters and what's really happening. The characters and their motives are revealed only gradually, and there also seems to be quite a bit of symbolism which merits further study.

Although the film didn't completely win me over, Montgomery directs it with his usual flair. He had previously assisted John Ford on THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945) and then directed his first full-length feature film, LADY IN THE LAKE (1947). RIDE THE PINK HORSE was his second full-length directing effort.

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote of Montgomery, "...he has artfully fashioned a fascinating film within the genre. He has done something else exceptional; he has given the other actors a real chance." Indeed, Montgomery directed Thomas Gomez (Pancho) to an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for this film.

Montgomery would go on to direct ONCE MORE, MY DARLING (1949), EYE WITNESS (1950), and THE GALLANT HOURS (1960). It's a shame Montgomery didn't direct more films, as he had a real talent for it, but he chose to spend most of the '50s engaged in other endeavors, including television (ROBERT MONTGOMERY PRESENTS), Broadway (Tony winner as Best Director for THE DESPERATE HOURS, which starred Karl Malden and Paul Newman), and as a media advisor to President Eisenhower.

The producer of RIDE THE PINK HORSE was longtime Hitchcock associate Joan Harrison. She and Montgomery also teamed on ONCE MORE, MY DARLING and EYE WITNESS.

The film's cast also includes Andrea King as a femme fatale. The black and white cinematography was by Russell Metty, and the music was by Frank Skinner. The running time is 101 minutes.

Despite my reticence to completely embrace this film, it has many intriguing elements and really deserves to be available on DVD, where it can be more widely seen, analyzed, and discussed. It was a Universal production, so it's a shame it wasn't released as part of the Universal Noir Collection. Hopefully at some point it will at least be released as a manufactured-on-demand disc in Amazon's Universal Vault Series or TCM's Universal Collection.

December 2014 Update: RIDE THE PINK HORSE will be released by the Criterion Collection in March 2015, with extras including a commentary track and a Lux Radio Theatre radio production.

April 2015 Update: I had the wonderful opportunity to see RIDE THE PINK HORSE in 35mm at the Noir City Film Festival. Exactly as I had surmised, the movie played much better the second time around -- and the dreamlike atmosphere comes off particularly well on a big screen in the dark.


Blogger Kristina said...

Great review Laura-- I love it when people are honest about their reactions instead of going along and pretending they like a movie because it's accepted that it's a deep and/or cool film (Emperor's New Clothes syndrome). I feel the same about Kiss Me Deadly, only more so. I wasn't sure how to feel about Pink Horse myself, I sure didn't love it, for most of the reasons you mention (disorienting, detached, meandering etc). It was a necessary view bc I too love Robt Montgomery, but I did end up really enjoying the interesting performances, and was especially impressed by Wanda Hendrix, who I thought was so good and fun to watch she almost single handedly carries the movie. At some points though it does almost feel like an over-stylized parody of noir, but then Montgomery seems as bewildered as we are, so maybe he was going for that(?).

Thanks for doing the review!

4:07 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Kristina! I was really interested to know what you thought of it, as our opinions are so often in tune.

I think the film should probably be counted a success in part simply because it is capable of engendering a lot of conversation and analysis -- I'm still mulling the film over and contemplating its deeper meanings (grin). But it's interesting, it's that same need to ponder and "figure it out" that also meant I was kind of detached -- since I didn't know what they were all about and exactly what was going on, I had some trouble relating to them.

A big thanks to *you* for making it possible for me to see it! ;) It's been on my wish list a very long time indeed!!

Best wishes,

9:35 AM  
Blogger Carrie said...

"Mystical" is the right word to describe the film. It isn't Bob's best, but it's always an interesting watch. Makes me wish he had seedier roles in more Bus Stations...that whole noir thing.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for weighing in, Carrie! Your comment about Bob and bus stations calls to mind FUGITIVE LOVERS (1934), a "Bob and bus station" film I really enjoyed. :)

Mr. Montgomery really quit making movies too soon, a few more would have been so welcome, especially after he took so much time off while serving during the war. Ah, well...

Best wishes,

2:57 PM  

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