Ride the Pink Horse (1947) Robert Montgomery
Criterion Collection DVD (library)
A man named Gagin (Robert Montgomery) wearing a suit and hat steps off a Greyhound bus into the small town of San Pablo, New Mexico, looks around, takes several tentative steps, and discreetly transfers a gun from his briefcase to his suit jacket pocket. The locals – Hispanic Americans and Native Americans – are preparing for the town’s annual fiesta, but Gagin has no interest in these people or their celebration. He’s here for another reason: to find a man named Frank Hugo, the man who killed Gagin’s friend.
Gagin is abrupt with everyone he meets, curt, condescending and rude. A teenage girl named Pila (Wanda Hendrix) offers him an Indian charm, but Gagin dismisses it and her, telling Pila he’s not buying any souvenirs. Pila tells him it’s not a souvenir and she doesn’t want any money for it; it’s for protection.
Superstitious charm or not, Gagin’s going to need some help. The cards are hopelessly stacked against him: Hugo (Fred Clark) is a very big man who has money, resources, and men guarding him constantly. Gagin doesn’t even have a place to sleep. (All the hotels are booked for the fiesta.)
Some potential help arrives in the form of a man named Retz (Art Smith), an FBI agent who’s been following Gagin and also has an interest in getting something on Hugo. Retz knows that Gagin is a former serviceman and asks him to work with him to bring Hugo down. Gagin refuses, dishing out snide, sneering comments to Retz that he’s not a flag-waver. Retz replies, “You’re not a bad fella. You’re like the rest of the boys, you’re all cussed-up because you fought a war for three years and got nothing out of it but dangled ribbons.”
Post-war disillusionment from returning servicemen is a common theme in film noir, but Ride the Pink Horse gives it a different twist by placing it in New Mexico. Although we’re still in the United States, it feels as if we’re not, with a location where life is slower and the effects of post-war problems are more subdued. Gagin feels a sense of disgust for the locals until he begins to encounter more tourists from larger cities, people converging on the small town for the fiesta. Although he’s not here for the celebration, he begins to see that the society he’s most familiar with maybe isn’t so attractive and that the locals may have something more substantial to offer.
Ride the Pink Horse is an atypical noir in that it is not set in a standard noir location and that the plot is fairly straightforward: none of the usual labyrinthine plot elements are found here. Yet there’s something more that’s very different from what we typically see in film noir. What strikes me most about the film is the way two complete strangers notice Gagin, see that he’s clearly out of his element, needs help and protection, and do something about it. Neither Pila nor Pancho know Gagin when they first meet him and the film really gives us no reason as to why they want to help him. After all, he’s a stranger, he’s not one of them. They aren’t in it for the money, either. Yet as a Christian I can’t get around the fact that both Pila and Pancho are displaying a very Christlike attitude toward Gagin. They know he has money, but they never seem interested in it. There’s something about their genuine desire to help him and their sacrifices for him, expecting nothing in return, that shatters what we normally see in film noir (and in life). Part of this is showing Gagin that his post-war disillusionment does not reach everywhere and that there are places in the world – and people in it – who grant mercy and grace where none is asked for or perhaps even deserved.
Ride the Pink Horse contains a very good performance from Montgomery, and excellent performances from Thomas Gomez (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, the first time an Hispanic-American actor was nominated) and Wanda Hendrix, whose career consisted mostly of B-pictures and whose work sadly takes a backseat to the fact that she was married briefly to Audie Murphy.
Before this year, Ride the Pink Horse was notoriously difficult to find. Turner Classic Movies subscribers might see it show up from time to time, but that was about it. Thankfully, Criterion has released the film on DVD and Blu-ray, including an interview with Imogen Sara Smith, author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, a Lux Radio Theater adaptation, and a commentary featuring film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. Do not miss this one, especially if you’re a film noir fan.