Ride the Pink Horse (1947),* directed by and starring Robert Montgomery, has been on my to-see list for some time, primarily for the oddness of its title. A second reason was to see if I could truly enjoy Montgomery as a noir lead. I watched his Lady in the Lake (1946) twice, and enjoyed neither his acting nor directing. I get the experiment, but it failed for me (and most viewers), plus, he’s just not deep enough for what I like in a portrayal of Dashiell Hammett’s iconic detective Phillip Marlowe. Audrey Totter didn’t do it for me either.
So, I suppose you can say this film doesn’t really belong on a “Cinema Shame” list for me, as there’s no crime, so to speak, in skipping this picture. But I did want to give it a go for a long time, and yesterday I finally did. Sadly, I cannot say I liked it as much as I hoped to. Montgomery again did not impress me as an actor or director, although I can say the film was quite interesting in terms of a subject I love to study: race, nation, and noir anxiety. Before I give my two cents in full, let me offer Criterion’s praise:
Hollywood actor turned idiosyncratic auteur Robert Montgomery directs and stars in this striking crime drama based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. He plays a tough-talking former GI who comes to a small New Mexico town to shake down a gangster who killed his best friend; things quickly turn nasty. Ride the Pink Horse features standout supporting performances by Fred Clark, Wanda Hendrix, and especially Thomas Gomez, who became the first Hispanic actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for his role here. With its relentless pace, expressive cinematography by the great Russell Metty, and punchy, clever script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, this is an overlooked treasure from the heyday of 1940s film noir.
Wow, that’s some applause, eh? I do like noir about former soldiers, especially when they comment on PTSD, patriotism, and populism. (I’m fond of analyzing Key Largo in these terms, for example.) And I’m thrilled to know Gomez became the first Hispanic actor to get an Oscar nom for playing Pancho, however much I might find his character (not to mention Wanda Hendrix’s Pila) a figure straight from the white racist imagination. It does have expressive cinematography, and the pace is solid. But neither plot nor characters gripped me, and that sunk the whole picture for me.
The sleepy New Mexico town with a fiesta hit many a film stereotype bulls-eye without flinching. The criminal bent on revenge who changes when others come to his aid is equally unoriginal. Pancho is brave and loyal to the American who bought him drinks, but he’s also the mythical fat, drunken Mexican, right down to the poncho and hat he puts over his face to sleep. And Pila is the mystical Native American, innocent yet wise, with a supernatural ability to sense danger to a man she does not know but somehow “must” protect. We are supposed to judge Montgomery’s “Lucky Gagin” for his narrow worldview and racism in calling Pila “Sitting Bull,” but the screenplay and direction turn Pila into a one-dimensional Magic Indian, Gagin’s savior. I didn’t groove on any of it, nor on Art Smith’s Bill Retz, the wise old FBI guy who also wants to save Gagin with little reason, or the rather pointless femme fatale/moll of the film, Marjorie (Angela King). Oh, and I don’t like the ending either.
In sum, I can say I’m glad I saw the film, and I wouldn’t tell others not to watch it…just not to expect much. Best of all, I finally know what the “pink horse” refers to.
*I keep writing “white horse” and correcting it because I keep thinking of the Laid Back song from 1983: