By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 28, 2015)
Ride the Pink Horse – Criterion Collection Blu-ray
If you prefer your dark tales of avarice and deception served up with style and atmosphere, I’m happy to report that Ride the Pink Horse, a nearly forgotten film noir gem, has just been reissued on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.
Previously unavailable for home viewing (save an occasional airing on TCM), the 1947 crime drama was the second directorial effort from actor Robert Montgomery (his debut, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe mystery Lady in the Lake, came out the same year). Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer adapted the screenplay from the 1946 book by Dorothy B. Hughes (Hughes also penned In a Lonely Place, the source novel for Nicholas Ray’s classic 1950 noir).
Montgomery casts himself as a poker-faced, no-nonsense customer named Gagin (no first name is ever mentioned). Gagin rolls into a sleepy New Mexico burg, where the locals are gearing up for an annual fiesta blowout. Gagin, however, has but one thing on his mind: putting the squeeze on the mobster (Fred Clark) who killed his best friend. Gagin’s plan is to hit this professional blackmailer where it’ll hurt him the most…in his wallet. Much to his chagrin, a wily G-man (Art Smith) already has his mark staked out…and has taken a pretty good educated guess as to what Gagin is up to.
The story becomes more psychologically complex once the insular Gagin unexpectedly develops a surrogate family bond with a bighearted carousel owner (Thomas Gomez, whose performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role) and a taciturn, semi-mystic teenage Indian girl (Wanda Hendrix).
Ride the Pink Horse is unique in that it skirts several genres. In its most obvious guise, it fits right into the “disillusioned vet” subgenre of the classic post-war noir cycle, alongside films like Act of Violence, Thieves’ Highway, The Blue Dahlia and High Wall. It also works as a character study, as well as a “fish out of water” culture-clash drama.
Montgomery skillfully mines the irony from the cultural contrasts in a manner uncannily presaging John Huston’s 1982 film adaptation of Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano (which, weirdly enough, was published in 1947, the same year that Ride the Pink Horse was released).
Criterion’s restored print really sparkles, highlighting Russell Metty’s atmospheric, beautifully composed cinematography. Extras include an insightful commentary track by two noir experts. Genre fans will not be disappointed.