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.

Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: TROUBLE FOR TWO (1936)

There are certain movies that I want to see simply based on the synopsis, and then there are certain movies that I want to see simply based on who is starring in them.  TROUBLE FOR TWO was a film I wanted to see for both reasons.  Rosalind Russell and Robert Montgomery tangling with a suicide club?  How could I say no?

Prince Florizel (Robert Montgomery) of Carovia is bored and unhappy.  He is entertaining himself by having a traveling circus teach him to balance on stilts, but his spirits cannot be raised.  He is set to be married to Princess Brenda of Irania, a woman he hasn’t seen since childhood.  Florizel’s father, the King of Carovia, decides that his son needs a holiday in London in order to clear his head before the wedding.  Florizel goes off under the assumed name of Mr. Theopholus Godall, along with his faithful right hand man Colonel “Gerry” Geraldine (Frank Morgan).

The boat voyage to England starts off quite normally and Florizel is bored again in no time.  But then, several days into the journey, Florizel meets an enchanting and mysterious young woman named Miss Vandeleur (Rosalind Russell).  Miss Vandeleur asks Florizel to hide some papers for her which he agrees to do.  Later Florizel seeks Miss Vandeleur out in her cabin where they are confronted by a shady individual who is searching for the very papers Florizel is hiding.  The would be robber leaves empty handed and Gerry is feeling a little less enthused about Florizel’s vacation from home.  Florizel for his part is having a great time and welcomes the change of pace.

Once the boat docks Florizel goes in search of his new crush but finds that the cabin Miss Vandeleur was occupying were listed as empty on the ship’s log.  What’s more, the papers he was guarding for her were simply blank pieces of paper.  Florizel resigns himself to never knowing the truth about the mysterious woman from the boat.  He and Gerry go off to eat dinner at a local tavern.  While they are enjoying their meal a young man enters with a tray of cream puffs, yes cream puffs.  He offers up his tray of sweets to the tavern as he has no more need of such earthly delights as has decided to end his own life.  Florizel and Gerry are quite shocked, as you might imagine, and invite the young man to eat with them.  While they eat the cream puffs the young man, whose name is Cecil Barnley, relates his story of a misspent youth.  Rather than cause his family more shame by continuing on living, Cecil has resolved to end his life by joining a suicide club and thereby sparing his family’s honor.  The suicide club works in a unique way allowing the members to die but not by their own hand, rather at the hand of another.  Florizel, much to Gerry’s shock, then proposes joining Cecil and becoming a member of the suicide club himself.  Cecil is delighted to have fellow members with him and escorts Florizel and Gerry to the club’s meeting place so they might speak with the club president.  As they leave Gerry demands to know just what Florizel is thinking.  The young prince wants to save Cecil and believes that if he joins the suicide club with him, he might be able to talk him out of going through with it.  Neither Gerry nor Florizel notice Miss Vandeleur eavesdropping in a booth nearby, and neither notice when she follows their carriage to the suicide club.

Once at the club Florizel and Gerry talk to the President of the club (Reginald Owen).  They are allowed to become members, after paying a hefty admission fee and explaining their reasons for wanting to die.  The men begin to mingle with the other club members when the door opens and Miss Vandeleur enters.  Florizel tries to make his way over to speak with her but the President calls the meeting to order.  The members assemble around a table and draw cards from the deck.  Cecil draws the Ace of Spades, which signifies that he will be the victim, while Miss Vandeleur draws the Ace of Clubs, which signifies she will be the executioner.  These two then leave the room to receive their instructions from the club President while the other members return to their homes.  Florizel remains behind, hoping to run into Miss Vandeleur before she leaves but he is stymied once again.  He is not overly concerned however, as he still believes that the suicide club is a big joke.  The joke seems to be on him the next morning when the paper runs the story of Cecil’s death.

Gerry wants to go home but Florizel is determined to find Miss Vandeleur again.  And so it is that the next night the two men return to the suicide club.  Once again the members assemble and draw cards.  Once again Miss Vandaleur draws the card of the executioner, but this time her victim will be…Florizel.  Gerry is horrified as his young master and the woman who might as well be a black widow, are lead off by the club President.  The two are escorted to a waiting carriage and head off to a secluded spot.  Specifically they go off to the zoo, even more specifically they go off to the lion cages.  Florizel attempts to talk to Miss Vandeleur but she isn’t very forthcoming.  Finally he gives up, just as they reach the lions.  Miss Vandeleur then turns to him and begins to unlock the cage door.

I really enjoyed this film, it was such a pleasant surprise.  Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell have such great chemistry together, they make what could have been a pretty bland B-picture come alive with a terrific energy.  I love Robert Montgomery, I would like to throw out an appeal for someone to write a biography about him, and he has such a twinkle in his eye during this film.  His prince never comes off as spoiled or petulant, rather as a lovable rascal who you would really love to get to know.  And you can never go wrong with Frank Morgan, who is terrific as the put upon friend/servant to Robert Montgomery.  Also, this happens:

Rosalind Russell makes any film she is in exponentially better just by being there.  She also has this really excellent quality about her that translates into her characters.  Her women always seem to be up for anything, able to handle just as much as the men, and have fun at the same time.  She and Robert Montgomery pair up so well because they are both irrepressible and irreverent.  Their relationship and chemistry is what takes this film from being blah to being really fun and enjoyable.  I will say that Robert Montgomery is not a terribly impressive swordsman, Errol Flynn he is not, and there are a few clunky moments that made me chuckle at their awkwardness.  But all in all this was a really fun film and a very nice way to spend an afternoon.