Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

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

Robert Montgomery as Lucky Gagin
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.

And it’s a great story. Gagin, with all his postwar malaise and cynicism, is set down in San Pablo during a fiesta among complete strangers and learns to accept help in spite of himself. San Pablo isn’t a typical noir setting: It’s a dusty Southwestern town, and it wouldn’t be crowded if it weren’t for the fiesta, but the town and the film remind viewers that corruption, cynicism, and violence can be found anywhere.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Sueurs froides (Book) (1958)

Sueurs froides, by Boileau-Narcejac (Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud [Thomas Narcejac], writing as Boileau-Narcejac
Also known as D’entre les mort (Among the Dead), The Living and the Dead, and Vertigo
Paris, France: Éditions Denoël, 1958
Originally published in 1954

List of main characters:
Roger Flavières, retired detective
Paul Gévigne, friend of Flavières
Madeleine Gévigne
Renée Sourange

Earlier this summer, I completed an online course about Alfred Hitchcock (TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock), which was taught by Dr. Richard L. Edwards of Ball State University, in collaboration with TCM and Canvas Network. One of the films that we discussed as part of the course was Vertigo. Its critical reputation has been elevated in recent years, but I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy it as much as other Hitchcock films. When I learned, however, that Vertigo is based on a French novel, I decided to read it and see what the original story was all about. I did indeed read the French paperback version pictured at right, but you can still find the English-language translation.

In the novel, an old childhood friend, Gévigne, contacts the retired detective Flavières for help in discovering what is happening to his wife, Madeleine, who appears to be lost in altered states part of the time. Gévigne expresses concern about her well-being because one of her relatives, Pauline Lagerlac, exhibited the same symptoms and committed suicide.

Flavières is reluctant at first. He is retired; he suffers from bouts of vertigo because he witnessed another police detective fall to his death while on the job. He wonders if Madeleine needs professional medical help and not a detective tracking her every move. But Gévigne is persistent. He wants to know more about his wife’s habits and daily excursions before he comes to any conclusions about her mental state or her intentions. Flavières agrees to help and soon finds himself falling in love with Madeleine Gévigne.

(This blog post about the novel Sueurs froides contains spoilers.)

The novel is divided into two parts, and one of the reasons for this division is the invasion and occupation of Paris during World War II: It introduces a major break in the personal recounting of events by Flavières and a break of four years in the narration. Another reason, one even more important to the plot, is that Flavières couldn’t help Madeleine Gévigne after all: She kills herself at the end of part one by throwing herself from a church tower.

Or does she? Part two picks up Flavières’s story and the possibility that Madeleine is alive after all, that Flavières left Paris with inaccurate memories of events surrounding the Gévignes. He is determined to find out the truth in part two.

Everything in the novel is described from Flavières’s perspective, and that vantage point is perfect for noir. The narrative unfolds from his point of view, which makes it easier to wonder if he is a reliable narrator. In part two, he visits Doctor Ballard, who suggests that he really isn’t mentally unfit, just in need of rest at a colleague’s health retreat near Nice. Before going to Nice, however, Flavières takes a detour to track down a woman he believes is Madeleine come back to life. When he insists on bringing up the past with her and asking her questions about the Gévignes, she calls him mad. And readers have to wonder if she (and not Doctor Ballard) might be right. The limited number of characters (the novel has only four main characters) means that Flavières interacts with very few other people, which makes it even harder to judge if his perspective is accurate.

Even the publication details of the novel are cloaked in a bit of mystery. It is written by two authors, Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud. The latter uses a pen name (Thomas Narcejac) and, writing together, they use a hyphenated version of their names (Boileau-Narcejac). All these identities rolled into one author on the cover is something like the multiple identities taken on by one of the characters in Sueurs froides. The title of the novel has alternate titles in both French and English, again suggesting that identity is fluid.

For readers like me whose first language is English, this is one instance when I can recommend watching Hitchcock’s film Vertigo before reading the original story in French. I started learning French in kindergarten, and I am sorry to say that I haven’t kept it up like I wanted to, but it was fun to read the story in its original language. Remembering the plot of the film helped me, with my somewhat limited French, in reading the story.

And it’s a great story, much better in the original published version. Flavières is more tormented, more driven, more culpable than his counterpart, Scottie Ferguson, played by Jimmy Stewart, in Hitchcock’s film version. Flavières makes a much better noir protagonist.