I have recommended Dorothy Hughes’ dark novel In a Lonely Place and its classic film adaptation. Almost as good is a 1947 adaptation of a crime thriller she set in her home town of Santa Fe, New Mexico: Ride the Pink Horse. Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, two of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters, adapted her book, contributing their trademark biting noir dialogue along the way.
The story opens with a man named Gagin (Robert Montgomery) arriving in a town near the U.S.-Mexico border. The disillusioned, rootless, ex-GI is the ultimate film noir protagonist (though the cynical, hard drinking ,private eye vies for the distinction) and Gagin is the apotheosis of the type. Gagin’s come to town to find the mobster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), who killed his army buddy. But Gagin’s not there to murder Hugo, or even to turn him over to the federal agent (Art Smith) who’s been on Hugo’s trail for years. Rather, the cynical Gagin just wants a payoff for some incriminating information he possesses. Intrigue and brutality follow.
The story unfolds a bit too slowly, but atmosphere fills in nicely for plot development, including what for the period was an unusually positive portrayal of Mexican culture and Mexican people. Gagin is dismissive of the locals at first, but in addition to helping him survive, they prove to be almost the only decent people in a town populated with violent gringos like Gagin and Hugo. Thomas Gomez is particularly compelling as the operator of a merry go round (hence the film’s name). For his performance, he became the first Hispanic actor in history to be nominated for an Oscar.
The key creative force behind the film is Robert Montgomery (father of Elizabeth of Bewitched fame), who had just left MGM because they didn’t want to let him direct the films in which he starred (Even if profitable, his famously gimmicky Lady in the Lake may have been why). Producer Joan Harrison was open to Montgomery working on both sides of the camera and got Universal on board. He fares well as a director here, giving the talented supporting cast a chance to shine (indeed they outshine him, his acting is only okay).
Montgomery also continues his penchant for unusual visuals. The opening tracking shot, which runs for several minutes, is extremely well done and one wonders if this was a rehearsal for cinematographer Russell Metty, who later created with Orson Welles probably the most famous opening extended take in history (in Touch Of Evil). I also liked how in Montgomery’s first meeting with femme fatale Andrea King, he puts the camera behind his character, looking over his shoulder at her as they size each other up. We can see her face, but we can’t see his, which is unnerving in a way that works. There’s also a creative if brutal shot from a camera on a merry go round, repeatedly giving the audience a glimpse of an ongoing beating.
Ride the Pink Horse was hard to find for many years, but you can probably track it down on line or on a classic films channel. It’s worth the extra effort to view this sturdy and unusual entry in the noir genre.