October 8, 1947, release date
Directed by Robert Montgomery
Screenplay by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer
Based on the novel Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes
Music by Frank Skinner
Edited by Ralph Dawson
Cinematography by Russell Metty
Wanda Hendrix as Pila
Andrea King as Marjorie Lundeen
Thomas Gomez as Pancho
Fred Clark as Frank Hugo
Art Smith as Bill Retz
Richard Gaines as Jonathan
Rita Conde as Carla
Iris Flores as Maria
Tito Renaldo as the bellboy
Grandon Rhodes as Mr. Edison, hotel desk clerk
Martin Garralaga as the bartender
Edward Earle as Locke
Harold Goodwin as Red
Maria Cortez as woman working in the elevator
Milton P. Morrell as the Greyhound bus driver
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Produced by Universal Pictures
I had not heard of Ride the Pink Horse until just a few weeks ago, but I found the title intriguing. One of the things I enjoy about investigating noir is learning about many lesser-known films. Another is learning about all the novels and short stories that provide the basis for so many of these films. Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel of the same name was adapted for the screen by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, and now I have another work of noir literature to look forward to reading. I understand the novel is quite different from the film: much darker, more pessimistic, more noir.
(This blog post about Ride the Pink Horse contains spoilers.)
Ride the Pink Horse is a postwar film about many things, including disillusionment for the main character Lucky Gagin about the U.S. role in World War II and in the postwar world. Gagin, a war veteran, is searching for the killer of his friend Shorty. His quest brings him to San Pablo, New Mexico, during the fiesta commemorating the god Zozobra. The god’s name is Spanish for “anxiety,” and fiesta-goers hope to vanquish the god and their own anxieties by celebrating life and burning an effigy.
The opening of the film is mysterious and intriguing: all noir and little dialogue. The opening credits appear over a barren desert landscape and a road that disappears in the distance. Behind the last credit, a bus appears and advances into the foreground. Lucky Gagin is on that bus, which stops at San Pablo. His subsequent actions are methodical. Gagin disembarks and heads warily into the tiny bus station, where he sits on a bench, opens a briefcase, takes out a gun, and puts it in his waistband. Then he takes a check out of the briefcase, places the check in a bus locker, and takes the key. He buys some gum, chews it, puts the wad on the key, and hides the key behind a map on the wall of the bus station.
Gagin’s actions in the opening sequence lay out important plot points and leave questions unanswered. Why is Gagin carrying a gun? What is he doing alone in San Pablo? Why is the check so important that he feels the need to hide it in the bus station? And why leave the key to the bus station locker behind the map? The opening sequence gives viewers many good reasons to continue watching.
Gagin is looking for Frank Hugo because he believes that Hugo killed his friend Shorty. After leaving the bus station, Gagin arrives at La Fonda Hotel and muscles his way past Hugo’s assistant, Jonathan, into Hugo’s hotel room. When Jonathan demands that Gagin leave, Gagin punches him in the stomach and knocks him out.
The snappy dialogue is another feature to love about Ride the Pink Horse, and much of it is spoken by supporting characters. It adds a bit of comic relief to a nightmarish story. For example, when Jonathan regains consciousness in Frank Hugo’s hotel room, Gagin is already talking with Marjorie Lundeen, the femme fatale who knows Hugo and entered the room while Jonathan was still lying unconscious on the floor:
• Jonathan: “The police. Call the police.”
• Marjorie: “I don’t think this gentleman [Gagin] would approve of that.”
• Gagin: “Your boss just telephoned. He said he wouldn’t be back until tomorrow.”
• Marjorie: “Well, that’s being stood up rather thoroughly.”
Lundeen’s indifference to Jonathan’s suffering is the viewers’ first clue that she is the heartless femme fatale in Ride the Pink Horse. Later in the film, Lundeen sets up Gagin for an ambush outside La Fonda Hotel and proves that she really is the femme fatale. She acts as the lookout inside the hotel’s doors and believes that Gagin will be dead before long. But Bill Retz, a government agent, has been tailing Frank Hugo and—as a byproduct of that work—Lucky Gagin, and he interrupts Lundeen while she’s guarding the doors. The two of them have the following humorous exchange:
• Marjorie: “Oh, I’m sorry. Don’t I know you?”
• Retz: “I don’t know. Do you?”
• Marjorie: “Everyone knows everyone on fiesta night. Are you dancing?”
• Retz: “Not so you’d notice. Where’s Gagin?”
• Marjorie: “He stopped to talk to someone. It’s a good orchestra, isn’t it? Dance?”
• Retz: “Some other time.”
Then Retz brushes past Lundeen to find out what’s really going on outside the hotel ballroom’s doors.
The DVD from the Criterion Collection comes with audio commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini. I also enjoyed the DVD feature “In Lonely Places” with Imogen Sara Smith. All three made many points about the film, one of which was the film’s respect for Native Americans and Mexican Americans. Ride the Pink Horse includes Spanish dialogue that’s not translated, which is unusual for films of the period. And the story is as much about Pila, a Native American teenager, and Pancho, the Mexican American who owns the carousel with the pink horse, as it is about Gagin. They befriend Gagin and protect him when Frank Hugo’s henchmen hunt him down. They don’t care about money, although Gagin and Frank Hugo do. But Gagin starts to change by the end of the film; he’s becoming more like the friends who helped him. Pila, Pancho, and San Pablo (the town itself, the fiesta, and the inhabitants) are not merely backdrop. These elements and characters are interwoven throughout the story.