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Ride the Pink Horse

Ride the Pink Horse(1947)

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Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Today, it's primarily devotees of the film noir cycle for whom the atmospheric and fascinating Robert Montgomery vehicle Ride the Pink Horse (1947) holds name recognition, and that's unfortunate. It stands as evidence of how genuinely effective its star/director could be on those too infrequent occasions when he stepped away from the brand of light farce to which he was so heavily typed and was allowed to create a memorable antihero or villain. The viewer also comes away with regret that Montgomery never got more than a handful of directing opportunities from Hollywood, as the narrative displays an imaginative and confident hand from start to fade-out.

In the film, Montgomery portrays Lucky Gagin, a bitter WWII vet who had nothing but a life of petty crime waiting home for him after V-J Day. The screenplay, a somewhat loose adaptation by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer from the Dorothy B. Hughes novel, opens with him being deposited at the bus station of a dusty New Mexico city. What's brought him to town is the chance to confront Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), a vicious and semi-deaf crime lord with the disconcerting habit of receiving phone calls into a belt-mounted hearing aid. As it develops, Gagin's in possession of a canceled check that would tie Hugo to acts of war profiteering, and will only give it up for a price. Lucky's motives for squeezing Hugo are more than merely mercenary; the gangster had his best friend killed for attempting to run the same blackmail.

An elfin Mexican girl named Pila (Wanda Hendrix), filled with an odd fascination for this newly-arrived gringo, leads him to the town's hotel district, currently filled to overflow because of fiesta season. In his failed efforts to find lodging, Gagin encounters Retz (Art Smith), an older, cagey federal agent who's long been shadowing Hugo, and who patiently entreats Lucky to turn over whatever it is that he has that'll put the mobster away. Uninterested, Gagin hits the street in search of somewhere to sleep. He has but to buy a round at a local bodega to get an offer from the gregarious, rotund Pancho (Thomas Gomez), who happily shares his domicile: a lean-to adjacent to the city's antique carousel, which he operates. The danger level escalates for Gagin and his new acquaintances once Hugo sets his thugs out with the mission of recovering the evidence sans payoff.

Montgomery's first acting assignment in Hollywood upon his return from naval service was John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), and he was handed quite the surprise after Ford broke his leg during the waning days of the shooting schedule. While visiting Ford in the hospital, the actor recalled in a 1980 interview, Ford took a call from the studio, which wanted to know when he anticipated returning to the set. "He said: 'I'm not coming back...I'm staying here and getting my leg right. Then I'm going back to the Navy. Montgomery'll finish the picture.' That was the first I heard of it. It was quite the shock."

The experience whetted his appetite, and he thereafter served as director/star for an MGM project which would also come to be recognized as a noir staple, in adapting Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake (1947). In stepping into the role of Philip Marlowe, Montgomery kept the camera's perspective in the first person for the duration of the film, and only appeared on-screen for the occasional glance in a mirror. This willingness to take narrative chances would serve him well in Ride the Pink Horse, as evidenced by the single sustained shot during the opening minutes that finds him disembarking from the bus and concealing the all-important check within the station.

Beyond leading the viewer through this morally ambiguous universe with an assured directing touch, Montgomery is never less than wholly credible in his performance as the disillusioned, laconic thug Gagin ("He had what it takes. Dough.") Beyond plentiful location shots in Santa Fe, Universal arranged for the same 65-year-old Taos merry-go-round that had inspired Hughes' prose to be deconstructed, shipped to Universal City, and rebuilt.

Ride the Pink Horse also benefits from the more than capable efforts of the supporting players. Gomez, mostly remembered today for playing heavies (in every sense of the term) like his turn as Curley in Key Largo (1948), gives a most memorable performance here. Playing a character one initially expects to roll Gagin at the first opportunity, and who ultimately stands revealed as the most honorable figure in the film, Gomez received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination, the only such nod from the Academy that the feature received. The petite and pretty Hendrix brought an almost otherworldly quality to her characterization of Pila, and her work is arresting. It's too bad that no other role, or performance, of this caliber would be forthcoming from the balance of her career, which was checkered in part by a brief and tumultuous marriage to Audie Murphy.

Producer: Joan Harrison
Director: Robert Montgomery
Screenplay: Joan Harrison, Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, Dorothy B. Hughes (novel)<
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editing: Ralph Dawson
Art Direction: Robert F. Boyle, Bernard Herzbrun
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Robert Montgomery (Lucky Gagin), Wanda Hendrix (Pila), Rita Conde (Carla), Thomas Gomez (Pancho), Iris Flores (Maria), Fred Clark (Frank Hugo).
BW-102m. Closed captioning.

by Jay S. Steinberg

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