Written by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer
Directed by Robert Montgomery
Set in the small New Mexican town of San Pablo during a locally popular festival, actor-director Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse begins as a lonely stranger, Gagin (Montgomery), arrives in town by bus, takes a moment at the station to rent a locker into which he stashes a cheque, and then commences his search for one Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), wealthy businessman and the one responsible for the death of Gagin’s wartime friend. More than claim vengeance through blood, Gagin concocts a scheme to blackmail Frank, the aforementioned cheque holding particular importance in the ordeal. A stubbornly stern individual, Gagin is not easy to make friends with, but in a town where almost everybody is after his skin, including Frank, the latter’s main squeeze Marjorie (Andrea King) and FBI agent Bill Fitz (Art Smith), the archetypical noir protagonist will be blessed with assistance coming in the unlikely shape of two Mexican-American lower class denizens, Pancho (Thomas Gomez) and the socially awkward teenager Pila (Wanda Hendrix).
Seasoned film noir viewers who take a chance on Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse for the very first time are in for a unique experience. The director and fellow screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer confidently borrow from several noir tropes, only to shed different light onto them, their efforts producing a movie that feels familiar yet fresh all the same. The basic plot is one seen many a time in motion pictures of the era, particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War when many such leading men suffered from a post-war cultural malaise. The anti-hero viewers are invited to follow through the suffocating swamp of greed and betrayal is one several noir pictures have paraded as misanthropic justice seekers hell bent on getting what they believe is theirs. Gagin is not only a war veteran, but revealed early on to have not merited the anticipated economical and societal benefits of having fought for his country only a few precious years ago. While anger at the fate suffered by his friend fuels his drive, there is little doubt that his recent post-wartime experiences have only compounded his internal misery. A pithy conversation between Gagin and FBI agent Bill Fitz (Art Smith is delightfully sarcastic in the role) makes it abundantly clear that the loner has shun any attitudes of grander towards ‘Uncle Sam’, as he frequently utters with a tinge of bitterness.
Such is the lot of a host of protagonist in films of this ilk. Strangely, however weather-beaten and cynical they may be, there is a lure of hope in them that somehow makes their quests seem justified in some capacity. Even though Gagin is very rough around the edges and steadfastly engages in a plot involving blatant blackmail, the fact of the matter is he risks his neck for the sake of an old friend, not merely personal gain. What’s more, as the story develops and Gagin comes across a wider span of colourful characters, it becomes apparent that he is capable of feeling something apart from an unquenchable thirst for vengeance.
In one of the more interesting genre twists the filmmakers attempt, nearly all of the anti-hero’s allies in the picture are of Mexican decent. So often people of colour and other cultures are completely non-existent or are given very little to do of genuine interest in the old movies from the 1940s and 1950s and film noir is generally no exception, therefore making Ride the Pink Horse all the more curious for its willingness to breath some life into two extremely important supporting characters, the lower class merry-go-round owner Pancho and the socially inept teenager Pila. Both could not be any more different, Thomas Gomez giving Pancho enough lively energy and warmth for two characters let alone just one and Wanda Hendrix creating one of the stranger beings to grace the screen. Pila appears to Gagin in a zombie-like state, only capable of starring him in the face, her statuesque demeanour occasionally interrupted to stammer out awkward responses to his abrasive demands. Is she attracted to Gagin? Does she see something in him worth fighting for? Is she simply out of her mind and has no idea what she is doing? The film smartly never gives a clear answer to any of these queries, save for one line of dialogue that may or may not speak to some strange clairvoyance powers Pila possesses. Two impressively contrasting individuals succeed, through either natural charm or sheer persistence, in sifting through Gagin’s hard exterior. The latter never entirely sheds his hard nosed attitude, but he is tempted to rarely lay down his guard and appreciate the kindness of others.
He and Pila certainly make an odd couple. Despite the stark differences in their personalities, the performances of Montgomery and Hendrix bring exuberant life to their precious scenes together. Gagin cannot fathom what it is Pila wants or sees in him, yet apart from some early scenes in which he shoos her away out of mild annoyance, he never truly rejects her. In fact, a lunchtime meet-up at a hotel restaurant scene is arguably the iconic moment that encapsulates their off-kilter if unexpectedly strong bond. The more Pila tries to impress Gagin and become normal, the weirder she sounds and looks. The unspoken link tethering one to the other is established through the difficult dialogue exchange they share, with neither character fully understanding why the other is behaving the way they do yet both recognizing that the other is either not as bad or as weird as they initially appear.
Even the pacing of the film is not quite like what most viewers are accustomed to. Very little information pertinent to the plot is relayed until well into the film’s running time. The first third exists more to establish what sort of personality Gagin is and the world he inhabits than to hammer home critical plot points. At the outset the viewer follows the protagonist through a carefully constructed tracking shot as he strolls slowly within the confines of a bus station, taking in his surroundings to make sure no one has noticed him before hiding the infamous check in a locker box. The scene is exquisitely crafted, thanks in no small part to Russell Metty’s stylish cinematography. The languid pace set during the initial stages helps the viewer better appreciate the situation Gagin has willfully set foot in. He is in a place he knows little about, where most of the locales are comfortable in a native tongue other than his own. For a while he is truly alone. From there he spends a surprising amount of time simply looking to book a hotel room, a task that proves unspeakably difficult given the number of people in town for the annual fiesta, after which he makes the acquaintance of Pancho, with whom he strikes an unlikely relationship over a long night of drinking hard liquor.
Finally, there is the film’s general disinterest in establishing a clear-cut femme fatale even though one is potentially lurking in the background. In order to set a trap for the pesky Gagin, Frank Hugo (himself given a memorable quirk, what with his cumbersome hearing aid) , unbeknownst to the audience, sends his main squeeze Marjorie Lundeen (Andrea King) to foil Gagin’s plans with a little seduction and the temptation of bribing even more money out of Frank. Two unexpected developments follow. First, Gagin’s tactical defenses quickly save him from any danger as he very early on refuses the vixen’s advances. Secondly, following Gagin’s rebuttal, Marjorie’s role in the picture is severely reduced. In a blink of an eye the usually unshakable allure and seductive power of the femme fatale disintegrates.
Watching Ride the Pink Horse is akin to travelling to a land where many of the sights and sounds are similar to those one knows from back home but for which certain specific elements differ just enough to make the voyage feel like a new experience, or like eating a familiar dish prepared with a few new ingredients. The film certainly feels as though it belongs the long line of memorable, classic noir endeavors yet it also very much is its own entity.