Spoiler Warning! Before we go any further let me say that we will be having a somewhat detailed discussion of this film. While I will not be revealing the ending, several plot points will be mentioned so if you don’t want to know stop reading now.
A bus pulls into a small Mexican town. Passengers disembark and locals hawk their wares. Among the tourists is a man who stands apart. He walks with purpose into the bus station, under the sign that reads “WELCOME TO SAN PABLO”, and heads toward the back benches. Sitting down, he opens his suitcase and pulls out a gun which he slips into his jacket. Next he pulls out a slip of paper which he glances at before shutting the suitcase. Walking to the wall of lockers, he choses one and places the paper inside. Buying a stick of gum, he chews it and uses the softened gum to hold the key to the back of the large picture on the bus station wall. This task completed he goes outside and asks the first local he sees where he can find a certain hotel.
Various locals give him varying directions until he finds a group of young girls. The youngest girl offers to take him to the hotel, which she does, and before parting she gives him a local idol to protect him. The man, Lucky Gagin (Robert Montgomery), scoffs at this but pockets the doll anyway. Gagin enters the hotel in search of a man named Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) and when he receives no help from the front desk, he makes his own way upstairs to Hugo’s room and acquaints himself with Hugo’s man Jonathan. Gavin settles in to wait for Hugo to return when the door opens and a woman enters. This time it is Marjorie Lundeen (Andrea King), Hugo’s main squeeze and she seems less concerned about Jonathan and more concerned about who Gagin is. As she tries to work her charms on Gagin the phone rings and Hugo comes over the other end to say the he won’t be back until the next day. Gagin takes his leave and tells Marjorie to just tell Hugo that “Shorty’s pal” was here.
In the hotel lobby a little old man approaches Gagin and invites him to lunch. He has all the information on Gagin, including his name, bus number, and why he is so interested in Frank Hugo. The man is Bill Retz (Art Smith) and he works for the FBI. Retz is trying to arrest Hugo for the federal government but he needs more evidence, evidence which he believes Gagin has. Gagin refuses to help, sighting his experiences in the service during World War II as reason enough to doubt that the government would ever do anything decent. Retz leaves with one parting piece of advice for Gagin, don’t try to avenge his friend Shorty by killing Hugo.
Gagin goes in search of a hotel room for the night but finds that all rooms are booked thanks to the upcoming fiesta. The bellboy at one of the hotels advises him to seek out a local tavern which he does. However the tavern seems to be strictly for locals and they don’t offer a very friendly welcome…at first. Luckily a man named Pancho (Thomas Gomez), the local carousel operator, who teaches Gagin that the way to the local’s hearts is through tequila. Several drinks later Pancho and Gagin make their way back to Pancho’s carousel. Along the way they run into the girl who took Gagin to the hotel. The girl, Pila (Wendy Hendrix), continues to follow the two men until they both lay down to rest. Something catches her eye and she hurries over to Gagin, alerting him that someone is coming. It’s Retz and he has a warning for Gagin. Hugo got his message and knows who “Shorty’s pal” is. He has sent some of his men out looking for Gagin, hoping to kill him.
Gagin spends the night at Pancho’s carousel and in the morning heads back to the hotel for his meeting with Hugo. Hugo, who is deaf, is unfazed by Gagin’s arrival and is even hospitable. After some small talk things get down to brass tacks. Hugo knows why Gagin is there. It seems that Gagin’s friend Shorty used to work for Hugo and during his time there got the idea that he could be a crook too and decided to blackmail Hugo. This was a bad idea and it ended up getting Shorty killed. At this point Gagin reveals that he still has the cancelled check Shorty stole, the check that proves that Hugo bribed a government official, the check that he is willing to now sell back to Hugo for $30,000. Hugo agrees to Gagin’s demands and the two men plan to bring their respective pieces of the deal to the Tip Top Cafe that night.
I have a theory about film noir. I think that a lot of it comes from World War II. The disillusionment felt by the returning servicemen and their families, the adjustments that needed to be made by the men who had fought on the battlefields and the women who had served on the homefront, the displacement felt by an entire population who now found the world completely altered lead to the creation of the film noir. It wasn’t popular, correct, or acceptable to give voice to the feelings of pain, frustration, and alienation. Men were supposed to come home and get on with their lives, women were supposed to give up their newly discovered independence and go back to their former roles, families and communities were supposed to just carry on as if nothing had changed when of course everything had. The male stars returning to Hollywood were changed, the directors who had filmed the battles and troops were changed, the writers, producers, and directors who had sought refuge from their homes in Europe were changed. They all needed an outlet for the anger, the sadness, the disillusionment, and the pain they felt and they found it in making films that seethed with an undercurrent of darkness. Lucky Gagin’s entire journey in this film is propelled by his disillusionment with the country and the government after the war. He is disgusted by the common acts of cowardice and corruption he witnessed in the service, the selfish behavior seemingly promoted among the population, the love of the dollar at any cost with no care for your fellow man attitude that seems to be prevalent among the very people he saw so many men die defending. If they don’t have to care then why should he? If they didn’t have to be decent why does he?
I have read some reviews which mention Robert Montgomery as being something of a weak link when it comes to the acting in this film. More to the point, the feeling is that he falls short of bringing Lucky Gagin to full effect as a gangster especially as compared to Fred Clark’s portrayal of Frank Hugo. I have to say that I disagree with this evaluation. First of all, let me say that I think that Robert Montgomery is a wholly underrated actor. Most people think of him in terms of the urbane comedies of the 1930s, especially those he did alongside Norma Shearer. But I remember watching Robert Montgomery in NIGHT MUST FALL. In it he plays a psychologically damaged man who kills old women and keeps their heads in a hatbox. Starring alongside Rosalind Russell, Robert Montgomery gives an amazing performance of a man who is not purely evil but rather one who is disturbed and charming all at once. The film was a critical but not a financial success, a symptom most likely of audience’s unwillingness to see Robert Montgomery as anything other than the wise cracking friend who usually doesn’t get the girl. Perhaps it was thanks to this pigeon-holing that caused Robert Montgomery to direct and star in RIDE THE PINK HORSE. If he didn’t direct the film it would never get made and if he didn’t direct it he would never get to star in it.
To me, Robert Montgomery’s seemingly less than adept performance as a gangster is less a lack of skill and more an artistic choice. Lucky Gagin in the film is presented as a man who used to be a petty criminal before the war. He entered the service, perhaps hoping for a better life or a nobler cause, and after the war was so discouraged that he returned to his former life of small time crime. Shorty got him a job working alongside him and that was how he got involved with Hugo. Shorty was killed and Gagin decides to avenge his friend by making Hugo pay by hitting him where it hurts, his wallet. He isn’t going for a big score and he isn’t trying to make a fortune, pretty much everyone points out to him that he isn’t asking for very much money, rather he is trying to make a point. Make a point to Hugo, to Shorty, and to himself that the world is corrupt and easily bought and the only thing worth anything is money. Lucky Gagin isn’t a big time gangster and he isn’t a criminal mastermind. He is small time crook who is good in a fight. He isn’t too bright but he knows how the world works. He used to think that the government was worth fighting for but now he isn’t so sure. When up against Frank Hugo in a scene, Lucky Gagin feels like a blunt instrument which is what he was. And that is exactly how Robert Montgomery plays him.
RIDE THE PINK HORSE is a film noir that deserves a wider audience which will hopefully happen thanks to The Criterion Collection. This unusual noir is exceptionally well done and gives an indication of what a fantastic director Robert Montgomery could have been given the opportunity, as well as what a fine actor he was in drama as well as comedy. The opening scene alone is worth the price of admission, setting up the entire character of Lucky Gagin without ever saying a word. Robert Montgomery is much more than the light farce he spent much of his career making, hopefully this film will help to show that.