Robert Montgomery directs and stars in Ride the Pink Horse, a scintillating and humane film. This 1947 motion picture is based on the novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes and features a screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer. It exemplifies non-urban noir, with the action taking place in a small and impoverished border town.
The movie runs like a dream or even a fable, with droplets of Fellini’s wide-eyed wanderings thrown in for good measure. While Ride the Pink Horse features the elements of all sublime films noir, it also encapsulates life in the margins and transports the audience through a self-aware world of race, class and post-war concerns.
Montgomery is Lucky Gagin, a disenchanted veteran who arrives in San Pablo during its annual fiesta. He wants to confront the millionaire Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), a criminal he believes is responsible for the death of his war buddy Shorty. Gagin plans to exact a little blackmail on Hugo, but things get complicated in a hurry.
For one, Uncle Sam is watching in the form of government agent Bill Retz (Art Smith). Retz wants Gagin to lay off and find another way. For another, Gagin gets swept up with the locals. At first, he’s hostile to them. But when he meets Pancho (Thomas Gomez) in a slovenly saloon, he develops the grounds of friendship. And the country girl Pila (Wanda Hendrix) is the angel.
Montgomery’s Gagin is a traditional noir protagonist. He’s rough, tight-lipped, harsh. His arrival in San Pablo is terse and to the point. He hides a key and goes about his business. He sneaks his way up to Hugo’s room and punches someone out. He brushes off the invitations of the private secretary Marjorie (Andrea King) because he smells the danger.
No man is an island, though, and it isn’t long before the whirling tension of San Pablo rolls over into an emotional downpour. Gagin wanders into a tavern and meets Pancho and at first there is mystery. What does this bedraggled local want? He has a hole in his hat and he’s gregarious to a fault. Something must be up.
But Pancho, a man who says he is happiest when he has “nothing and a friend,” takes Gagin in when there’s no room at the inn. He lets him sleep in his palace, a cratered tent nestled off to the side of a carousel. He lets him use the razor he’s only used once. Later, when things really hit the fan, Pancho is there to take the punches.
And Pila, too, forms a resting place for Gagin. At first, she’s the spellbound local and the tough from the city can’t figure out why this goon keeps staring at him. She keeps showing up at the right times and doesn’t fit in with her buddies. She has these eyes and Hendrix plays her with curiosity and innocence and knowing wisdom.
Sometimes, Gagin flashes back to New Guinea. It’s like the war. And like many films noir, the war continues off the frontline. Men go to war with the streets, with themselves. They return home to nothing and they have seen enough of Uncle Sam. They’d have it with flags. Gagin wants a piece for himself.
But men like Hugo profit from war. They live the high life. They get the dames. Clark’s menace, offset by a gangling hearing aid, is wonderfully put to work in his portrayal of the crook. He slouches. He grasps at the confidence that’s supposed to be his, but all the money in the world can’t buy what he’s really after.
Montgomery and cinematographer Russell Metty assemble the world of Ride the Pink Horse with a shadowy and impeccably-framed aesthetic. There are many marvelous scenes, like when Pancho is set upon by thugs while children ride the carousel. The tale is told through background violence and the screams and wails of the kids, all drawn in close-up.
San Pablo and the experiences of Gagin embody the boundless notion of bad luck, which juxtaposes against Pancho’s cheerful acknowledgement of reality and Pila’s doe-eyed magic. And all the while, the burning of Zozobra – “Old Man Gloom” – looms in the background and offers the promise of good fortune just a shade too late.