After reviewing Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake during my week of Christmas crime reviews, I wanted to check out more from him. I went with another one from 1947, Ride the Pink Horse, which Montgomery also stars in. I really, really dug this gritty little film. Set in a small rural town in New Mexico, the film is ripe with the post-war disillusionment that defined noir, but transferred to an unorthodox setting. The minimal, brooding tone of the film remains consistent throughout, juxtaposing the annual fiesta taking place and wrapping this mean revenge tale in a tightly-wound blanket of doom.
The opening scene is wicked tense and instantly grips ya. Army veteran Lucky Gagin arrives via bus in the small town of San Pablo, New Mexico. He enters the bus station, leaves a note in a locker, then uses a wad of chewing gum to stick the locker key behind a framed map. Lucky’s actions are all very deliberate, like he’s not wasting an ounce of energy. Five minutes into the film and there are already a handful of questions. I’m glad there’s no narration to expose what Lucky’s up to. The audience is entirely along for the ride from the get-go.
A local peasant named Pila (Wanda Hendrix) shows Lucky the way to the hotel where hustler Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) is shacked up. This part is great. Lucky can’t get a room in the hotel, so he dupes the bellboy into checking his luggage, then the clerk into revealing which room Frank is in. This is one slick mother, this Lucky. Him and Pila develop a believable romance later on, but it never blossoms into a full blown, melodramatic love. Good.
Turns out Frank had Lucky’s best friend and fellow veteran Shorty murdered. Lucky’s out for revenge – he plans on blackmailing Frank for several thousand bucks. His plan is sidetracked when FBI agent Bill Retz (Art Smith) starts sniffing around. Turns out the feds want Frank’s ass as well. Bill wants Lucky to cooperate or get the hell outta town. Lucky does neither, of course, and Ride the Pink Horse then begins its dark spiral violence and manipulation.
Through the magic power of alcohol, Lucky gets some locals on his side, including carousel operator Pancho – played by Thomas Gomez, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role. Pancho could’ve easily been a stereotyped caricature, but instead he reflects the camaraderie that can be found in these condensed locations and cultures. He’s incredibly loyal and compassionate. Even when Frank’s goons kick the shit outta him in a truly harrowing scene, he won’t squawk about Lucky – a man he just met.
Montgomery is top notch as the sulking war hero returned to a country that doesn’t give a shit about him. The war isn’t over for him. Not until he gets revenge for Shorty. There’s a dark aura around Montgomery in the film – a stark contrast to the wise-cracking Marlowe he depicted in Lady in the Lake. He was pretty stiff in that film and constrained by the first-person POV, but here he’s this vengeful powerhouse of toughness. It’s a wounded toughness though, more weathered than macho. Hendrix also brings the heat as Pila, a caring, sympathetic peasant who trails Lucky through the streets until he finally shows her some compassion.
They share some really touching scenes, particularly when Lucky’s at the end of his rope and cared for by her. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s no bullshit romantic subplot though. They’re like kindred spirits – two wounded souls who find each other and help one another out.
I really dug Ride the Pink Horse. It was a great surprise after being kinda underwhelmed with Lady in the Lake. Fans of noir should do their eyeballs a favor and check this one out. It’s loaded with noir sensibilities and themes, such as post-war disillusionment and civilians being walked on by their government, but also brings some unique twists to the table.