Ride the Pink Horse (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – It wouldn’t be fair to call this film unknown—ask any die-hard film noir fan—but outside of classic movie buffs and noir aficionados, Ride the Pink Horse (1947) simply isn’t a familiar title. The film’s debut on DVD and Blu-ray should help change things, and the Criterion imprint certainly doesn’t hurt.
Based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, whose work also inspired In A Lonely Place, and directed by Robert Montgomery, this is rural noir, set in a fictional New Mexico border town created almost entirely on studio sets (with a few location shots in Santa Fe). Montgomery also stars as “Lucky” Gagin, a big-city thug who tracks a crime boss (Fred Clark) to San Pablo for a shakedown on the eve of its fiesta season. The shift from the city at night to a dusty southwestern town, where Spanish fills the streets and cantinas outside of the tourist hotel, gives this film a striking atmosphere and texture, but the themes come right out of the post-war dramas and crime movies. Montgomery is a working class thug who came home from the war disillusioned and angry and Clark, his blackmail target, is a war profiteer who hides behind the façade of big business and looks more like a middle-management functionary than a criminal tough guy. One of the oddest touches in film involves his hearing aid, which turns familiar phone call scenes upside down. (You might recalls Clark as the producer who dismisses William Holden’s baseball script in Sunset Blvd and as dyspeptic comic relief in scores of films and TV shows.) Ride the Pink Horse anticipates the connection between organized crime and corporate America that became even more prevalent in the 1950.
Gagin is streetwise but unimaginative and he’s way of his depths trying to strong-arm a mobster hiding behind a veneer of legitimacy, but he has guardian angels looking out for him: a paternal federal agent after the bog boss (Art Smith), the affable owner of a rickety carousel (Thomas Gomez), and especially a naïve but courageous teenage Native American girl (Wanda Hendrix) in town for the festival. They are wonderful characters, and the innocence of Hendrix’s ultra-serious schoolgirl and the generosity and loyalty of Gomez’s drinking buddy doesn’t just provide balance to the criminal story. These characters have an effect of Gagin, who isn’t corrupt as much as disillusioned. They bring out his innate but suppressed sense of compassion.
The film is both tough and touching, with crackling dialogue (scripted by the great Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer) and stylized scenes (the town was mostly recreated in the studio). And while it doesn’t have the sense of doom so common to film noir, the cast of crooks and double-crossing schemers is as mercenary and cowardly and tawdry as any you’ll find.
Criterion gives the film its Blu-ray and DVD debut in a superb digital master—I love noir black-and-white on Blu-ray—with commentary by film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, an interview with film noir expert Imogen Sara Smith (she delves into the rural noir tradition), and the 1947 “Lux Radio Theater” adaptation of the film with the three main stars.