Ride the Pink Horse offers a nasty, sweet take on film noir

A stranger in town
A stranger in town

The lilting cowboy music and the desert landscape that occupy the opening of Ride the Pink Horse (1947)—not to mention the film’s title—suggest that we’re about to see a western. But film noir, being less genre than style or attitude or philosophy, can absorb its materials and settings from most anywhere, and Ride the Pink Horse superbly balances seemingly disparate elements: rural and urban, terseness and tenderness, bleakness and hope. It’s a wonderful find, yet another great classic-period noir that makes us noir obsessives certain that this great dark well will never dry.

Based on the eponymous novel by Dorothy B Hughes, author of the source material for one of the greatest noirs, In a Lonely Place (1950), and scripted by Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, whose contemporaneous credits include Notorious (1946), Ride the Pink Horse follows one Lucky Gagin (Robert Montgomery), an abrasive Second World War veteran who arrives in a New Mexican town with little luggage, a gun and an idea about taking revenge on mobster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), whom he considers responsible for his best friend’s death. As far as story goes, when boiled down Ride the Pink Horse is straightforward and perfectly in keeping with what would eventually be recognized as noir’s hardboiled tropes. But the script takes a little distance from Hughes’ novel, softening certain things a little for its Hollywood incarnation, but also giving the story a dose of post-war resonance, in that its protagonist seems to be afflicted with what would later be deemed PTSD. It also features a surprisingly openhearted dialogue between that white protagonist and the many Chicano and Native American characters with whom he interacts. (Curiously, while their accents are atrocious, the actors in these roles speak very good Spanish.) What’s more, there’s nothing especially straightforward about the film’s red herring-like digressions—or Montgomery’s peculiar way of framing the action and emphasizing details.

Montgomery took directorial inspiration from John Ford, for whom he had to fill in during certain sequences on They Were Expendable (1945) when Ford was ill. Along with his conservative politics and his background as a matinee idol, there’s little to suggest that Montgomery would necessarily be given to innovation or stylistic risk, yet his first film as director, Lady in the Lake (1947), was distinguished by its crazy feat of filming the story exclusively through its protagonist’s eyes. Ride the Pink Horse, which was photographed by Russell Metty—an Orson Welles and Douglas Sirk collaborator—frequently generates its beauty and dramatic tension through a number of long and very bold sequence shots, most notably at the beginning of the film, when Gagin first arrives in town and performs a series of mysterious actions we haven’t yet been given context for, followed by Metty’s meticulously choreographed travelling camera. To go a long time without a cut in a movie is a way of heightening anxiety, and even though Ride the Pink Horse resolves itself in a manner less fatalistic than much noir, it is for much of its duration a cauldron of anxiety—there’s even a ritual burning of a nine-foot-tall papier-mâché god named Zozobra, which is Spanish for anxiety. Imminent danger lurks in every scene, as well as ugly violence—at one point a man is viciously beaten in front of a bunch of kids. It’s a film that’s both very nasty and sweet, and it earns its sweetness. It needs to be seen, and now it is much easier to see: Criterion will release Ride the Pink Horse on March 17. V

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