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Saturday, 23 May 2015

On DVD (6) - Ride The Pink Horse - Robert Montgomery's famous noir reviewed by Max Berghouse

Ride The Pink Horse (Universal Studios, 1947) is the first credited directorial role of the star Robert Montgomery. On first release it was unsuccessful at the box office but has since developed a conspicuous following, less I would think than "cult", but nonetheless significant; in many lists it is one of the principal films noir. This following may be to some extent due to the relative unavailability of worthwhile prints. I say this because I am struggling to find a reason for this recent strong positive critical commentary, where I found unfortunately only reasonable returns on viewing.

To the extent of any lack of availability of prints, this is totally rectified by the recent Criterion edition which is both flawless and utterly beautiful. The quality of the print brings out one of the most impressive aspects of the film, namely Montgomery himself who looks drawn and haggard, wary, watchful and suspicious. Of course he was considerably older than his prewar, relatively light, leading man roles and additionally he served in the Navy as an officer in World War II. Sharp lines surround his eye sockets and intensify a haunted look such that, presumably, he brings his own wartime life experiences into the role as Gagin, who we learn saw service in the damp and humidity of New Guinea and now finds himself in the intense dry heat of the town of San Pablo in New Mexico. Presumably, prewar, a petty thief, he arrives by bus at the township, immediately preceding a Mexican/Indian festival, to avenge his dead friend Shorty who was himself trying to shake down a gangster, Hugo (very professionally played by Fred Clark) who has dishonestly enriched himself at the expense of the Federal government during the war. Hugo with his associates is in San Pablo for the festival. Hugo killed Shorty.

The film appears to be entirely studio set with the sets apparently of Mexican colonial village style which I would have thought inappropriate for postwar America – but what do I know. In the early postwar period I imagine most working-class Americans did not travel far and certainly not from, say the heavily populated east coast to the south-west. So to that extent it may have been convincing. Several scenes take place in the hotel where Hugo resides and it is quite possibly a real hotel built in the style that is now recognised as a native American version of art Deco – Pueblo Deco. Although much of the township is artificial with for example papier-mâché walls abutting directly onto a studio wall, the effect is very effective and quite surreal.

Gagin's arrival by Greyhound bus is a signifier, even then, that he was on the very bottom of the economic ladder because only the very poor travelled by bus. He is not merely a man unsettled by the war, unable to find his feet and even more unsettled by going to a strange environment (as described above), he is a loser and as the film progresses, it is clear that he knows is a loser – and predicates all his actions on this self-knowledge. This is a distinguishing mark from most film noir at least to the extent that the resolution/denouement does not provide the protagonist with any degree of insight.

Unable to find lodgings, he ends up effectively in the "native quarter" of Mexican-Americans, all of whom seem to me to be much more Mexican than American. Here he meets the "buddy", "Pablo" played by Tomas Gomez (who was nominated for an Academy award as supporting actor – unsuccessfully) in the Mexican equivalent of a Steppin Fetchit performance of "Feet,git moving". It is all extreme accent and pigeon patois including references to himself as "Pablo". Extraordinarily condescending to a modern viewer.

Additionally he meets the virginal, almost sanctifying figure played by a ravishingly beautiful Wanda Hendrix, who although extremely young at the time, is still rather too old to play the role of "orphaned Indian from the sticks" and dressed in peasant 19th-century costume. This is a modern criticism and as indicated above may well have been acceptable to the audience of the time. Further there is the femme fatale, girlfriend to Hugo, who was quite prepared to sell out Hugo and Gagin for personal advantage.

Ultimately a crucial piece of evidence, a cheque,  proving Hugo's dishonesty, is passed by Gagin to an FBI agent delegated to tracking Hugo. This provides a resolution but it hardly seems purposive in light of our knowledge of Gagin's character. The agent is played by Art Smith, a noted actor from the left-wing Group Theatre who subsequently fell foul of HUAC.

The festival which draws so many people into town is awash with "señoritas" in colonial Spanish dress that probably came from the lot of one of the Zorro films, coupled with horsemen wearing the lurid faux cowboy attire that one associates with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. My modern sensibility couldn't let that pass. Others may be more generous.

The very literate script is by that master Ben Hecht together with Charles Lederer. Everything that Hecht touched was better for his involvement. Some critics have indicated that the storyline is confused, something I did not find and would consider to be objectively unlikely in light of the typically professional involvement of the scriptwriters.

Despite my criticism, this is meant only to indicate that the film is not at the top level of its genre. It remains eminently professional and well worth watching. Only once.

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