The Criterion Blogathon: RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947)

This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings.  Be sure to check out all the awesome posts here!

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.

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37 thoughts on “The Criterion Blogathon: RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947)

  1. billwhite1951 November 16, 2015 / 4:16 pm

    excellent write-up of an under-rated film. Lady in the Lake is another exceptional noir directed by and starringy Robert Montgomery. Did you ever know screenwriter/director Lloyd Fonvielle,? He also had a well-developed theory on World War Two and film noirs, and wrote about the effect of that war’s PTSD on both noir literature and films

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging November 16, 2015 / 5:25 pm

      I did not know Lloyd Fonvielle! Thanks for pointing me in his direction! I feel like I saw Lady in the Lake but a very long time ago…will definitely have to seek it out again soon…

      Like

      • billwhite1951 November 16, 2015 / 6:15 pm

        it was notable for showing everything from robert montgomery’s point of view. you only saw his face when when he looked into a mirror or was otherwise reflected.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nowvoyaging November 16, 2015 / 6:34 pm

        Neat! Sounds like the beginning of Dark Passage!

        Like

      • billwhite1951 November 16, 2015 / 7:16 pm

        lady in the lake came first, and stayed true to its concept through to the end. dark passage was a good movie, though.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Kristina November 16, 2015 / 5:00 pm

    Great post– this is a movie that felt strange to me the first time I watched but it stuck in my head, I see the weirdness is part of its appeal and I want to see it again, as I suspect I’ll really like it 🙂 Thanks so much for being part of this event with such a cool noir.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging November 16, 2015 / 5:39 pm

      Thank you! Yeah this is a bit of a strange noir especially the ending which is a bit more uplifting than what we are used to. I went into it blind which I think helped too!

      Like

  3. popegrutch November 16, 2015 / 6:43 pm

    Good post on an underappreciated move. Your theory on Film Noir works well and is in line with what’s been written about its development in the 40s. It may interest you to know that the term was invented by French critic Nino Frank in 1946 to describe movies that had been made in the US _during_ the war, including “The Maltese Falcon.” They were new to him (and France) because the Nazis and the Vichy government had prevented their being screened until after the war was over. From that point of view, US cinema was already taking a “darker” turn before the end of the war, although I would agree that it became most pronounced and distinctive in the late 40s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging November 16, 2015 / 6:49 pm

      I had heard something about this during the TCM noir course this summer! Thanks for the additional information! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Vanessa B (@callmeveebee) November 16, 2015 / 9:30 pm

    The thing that I like most about the Criterion Collection is that it releases films that I otherwise would never have heard of. Sure, CC releases popular favourites too, but their collection of lesser-known titles is amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Silver Screenings November 16, 2015 / 9:40 pm

    I agree with your analysis that film noir is a result of WWII and the dramatic way it changed not only the world, but individual people. And this is one film that does deserve a wider audience, like you pointed out.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with your excellent post – they are like liner notes in a Blu-ray! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging November 16, 2015 / 10:01 pm

      Aww thank you! And thank you for hosting this event and giving me an excuse to watch this film!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. aaronwest November 17, 2015 / 12:00 am

    Great post! And I agree on most counts. This is an underrated film that I was thrilled Criterion put out. I also agree with your assessment of Montgomery. He shined in this film! And I think you are into something about the post-war disillusionment, which is on display here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging November 17, 2015 / 12:26 am

      Thanks so much! And thanks for hosting such an awesome Blogathon! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Keisha November 17, 2015 / 2:40 am

    Great write-up on an underrated noir! I actually watched this for the first time earlier this month and really enjoyed it. It was mostly thanks to Criterion that I finally got around to checking it out, plus it has one of the coolest titles ever.

    And I agree with your thoughts on Robert Montgomery, he really doesn’t get enough credit as an actor. Unfortunately for him the supporting cast is just terrific, so maybe he pales in comparison for a lot of reviewers. But I think he’s great here, both in front of and behind the camera.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging November 17, 2015 / 2:47 am

      Glad to find another Montgomery fan! I’m with you, it was thanks to Criterion that I even heard of this film let alone get to see it!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Reel Distracted November 17, 2015 / 3:38 am

    Nice post! I had never seen the film either until Criterion put it out. I think that you are correct about Montgomery’s acting. Completely underrated. He oozes dissolution from the moment he gets off that bus. And the way he speaks to Hendrix, it is as if he is repulsed her innocence and yet drawn to helping her not end up the way he is.
    I think I’m going to have to watch it again very soon after reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging November 17, 2015 / 11:30 am

      Thank you! I agree about Montgomery and Hendrix. It’s like he sees her as weak because he saw Hugo and others crush “nice guys” and so now he has no time for that, but at his core he still wants to be decent and she can help him be that. I feel like that is why the ending with Hugo happens the way it does.

      Like

  9. monstergirl November 17, 2015 / 2:54 pm

    This was a great read for a lesser traveled noir film… so glad you covered it! And I agree with you about Montgomery’s performance in Ride The Pink Horse. He has a way of being very understated that is part of his charm & acting style! This is a great contribution to the #CriterionBlogathon

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Keith Enright November 17, 2015 / 7:24 pm

    Spot on about Montgomery and your post-war thoughts! This is a delightfully-old film and it is all the better for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. John Greco November 17, 2015 / 10:26 pm

    Odd little film, but it definitely should be better known. Excellent choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Todd Benefiel November 18, 2015 / 3:49 am

    One of those neat little noirs that fly under the radar…I watched it by chance years ago and thought it was great. So cool that Criterion put this out…I’m sure it looks much nicer than my ‘recorded from TCM to VHS to home-burned DVD’ version!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Kelly November 18, 2015 / 10:12 pm

    While I haven’t seen the film, I’m well acquainted with the novel, so I wasn’t afraid of spoilers. Great review! I’ll have to watch the film version ASAP.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging November 18, 2015 / 10:22 pm

      I would love to hear how it compares to the book!

      Like

  14. awolverton77 November 20, 2015 / 2:58 am

    Great review! I’d known about this film for awhile and was delighted that Criterion decided to release it; I feared I’d never see it. I absolutely love the film and really enjoyed the Imogen Sara Smith interview included as one of the supplements.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging November 20, 2015 / 2:59 am

      I need to get around to watching it again with the commentary!

      Like

  15. Grand Old Movies November 22, 2015 / 7:48 pm

    I agree with your assessment of Montgomery as an actor, that he’s underrated as a dramatic player (I think the same can be said of Dick Powell, who also transitioned to noir and whose performances in that genre are undervalued). Montgomery’s performance in this film is understated and grim; he plays it like a man who can’t find his place in the world. As you note, it’s an unusual film, but one worth seeing. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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