Robert Montgomery had been acting for a couple of decades when we got his first chance to sit behind the camera. Had John Ford not gotten injured during the filming of They Were Expendable in 1945, at which time Montgomery stepped into his shoes, it’s possible that Montgomery would never have directed at all. But history suggests this chance opportunity sparked something in the man, as he turned around and directed (and starred in) a pair of films right after: first, an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel, Lady in the Lake, which came out in January 1947; and, second, an adaptation of a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes (whom fans of NYRB Classics should know for her book The Expendable Man), Ride the Pink Horse, which came out in October of 1947 and which is being released in a new edition today by The Criterion Collection.
In Ride the Pink Horse, Montgomery stars as Lucky Gagin, a seemingly hardened man come who arrives in a small New Mexico to avenge his friend’s death — or at least get the money his friend was trying to get when he was killed. It’s a film noir — Gagin wears the right clothes, speaks with the right accent, stares down the right villains and women — that takes place in a western, where Gagin’s help comes from a poor but happy man named Pancho (Thomas Gomez, who with this part became the first Hispanic actor to receive an Academy Award nomination) and a mysterious young Mexican girl named Pila (Wanda Hendrix).
As the film opens, Gagin arrives in town on a Greyhound bus, deposits some document in a bus depot locker, and then goes through the dusty streets to a hotel where he waits for the man who had his friend killed.
But Lucky Gagin is not as lucky as we might first think. Indeed, the town is prepping for the annual festival where Zozobra, the God of Back Luck, is paraded through the town and then burned. Pancho does not smirk at bad luck, knowing it might be burned but that it always comes back.
There is a particularly on the nose (though it’s a touch I liked a lot) dissolve from Zozobra to Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), the villain. I like it because it plays with chance and luck; there’s Lucky Gagin wandering the streets, and here is the God of Bad Luck personified. As villainous as Hugo may be — and he’s pretty villainous, having has taken advantage of the war to steal a lot of money from the government, for which he’ll kill — it may all just come down to luck. Gagin’s friend was unlucky: he had evidence of Hugo’s bad deeds and was seeking to bribe Hugo when he got himself killed. Gagin, hoping to be lucky but perhaps just dumb, is going to try to do the same thing.
We quickly learn that Gagin’s tough demeanor is more or less just a façade. He actually doesn’t have a great plan worked out, and he’s perishable. A highlight of the film is a long stretch of the film when Gagin is injured and incapacitated and must lean on the diminutive Pila.
That’s one reason why I enjoyed Ride the Pink Horse so much: it has much that is familiar, but it allows itself to twist things, throw disparate elements together, leave things (like Hugo’s hearing problem) unexplained, and follow around a corrupt hero who isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks he is.
The other reason I enjoyed it so much is Montgomery himself. As an actor, he feels completely out of place, as if he himself thinks he’s in a different film. It works perfectly with Gagin’s situation. But even better is Montgomery’s directing. The film opens with a long take as we watch Gagin navigate the bus depot and the town. The long take adds gravity, makes us think Gagin is in control, laying the foundation for his plan, a notion that is soon subverted, especially by another interesting take when the camera is mounted on a spinning carousel, giving us glimpses of a beating every time it makes a round. And the film ends with another shot of Gagin looking on in bewilderment (I won’t say why), a feeling perhaps shared by the viewer — the film just isn’t going to go where it’s supposed to go.
The Criterion Collection edition does not have as many supplements as we may be accustomed to seeing, but they happen to be my favorite kinds of supplements: those loaded with commentaries from film scholars.
The main audio commentary that runs through the film is by film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. They admire the film a great deal, and I found their affection contagious, especially as they talked about what aspects of the film fit nicely in the noir conventions and which aspects go far astray. I especially enjoy commentaries that run through a scene and talk about why it works the way it does.
Next, we get a nice 20-minute interview with Imogen Sarah Smith, author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City. As you can tell from the title, Smith talks about “non-urban noir,” where films such as Ride the Pink Horse fit into the tradition and forge their own path.
Last on the disc we get the Lux Radio Theater Adaptation from December 1947, featuring all of the main players from the film. I know a lot of Criterion fans do not pay these adaptations much attention, but I think they’re always delightful and definitely give a sense of how these films were marketed at this interesting time in film history. The story itself suffers from the fast pace and the lack of Montgomery’s camera, but that’s not really why I listen to these. If only for the commercials, these are worth it.
The disc comes with a fold-out pamphlet featuring an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, which talks quite a bit about Montgomerey’s own trek to directing.