“I’m nobody’s friend. The man with no place.”
There were great, classic film noirs made in the late 1940s and early ’50s, often directed by A-list directors with the big stars of the period in the cast. But then there were dozens of lesser-known, off the beaten path film noirs that fell through the cracks—movies that were just as good if not better than their more famous counterparts but which lack the reputation and widespread availability to make them a larger part of the cinematic conversation almost 70 years later. Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse is one such film.
Best known as an actor who worked a lot in the ’30s and ’40s (in movies such as Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Montgomery began directing as a fill-in replacement when John Ford had health complications during They Were Expendable. He then turned to directing his own features, starting with 1947’s Lady in the Lake. Though the reception was mixed at the time of its release, the film has now garnered a reputation as a classic of the genre. Hopefully the same thing will now happen for Ride the Pink Horse, Montgomery’s second solo outing as a director released later the same year.
Based on the novel by Dorothy Hughes, Ride the Pink Horse stars Montgomery as Gagin, an embittered former soldier who arrives in New Mexico with designs on blackmailing gangster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark, Sunset Boulevard), who he blames for the death of his best friend. An FBI agent (played by Art Smith of In a Lonely Place) asks him to cooperate in prosecuting Hugo, while a peasant girl (Wanda Hendrix, Johnny Cool) pleads with him to walk away. Gagin listens to neither of them, which only leads to more trouble.
One of the tenets of film noir is its mix of nihilism and fate: people are free to make bad choices, and those bad choices lead to worse outcomes. One of the best qualities of Ride the Pink Horse is that it’s a movie very much concerned with that idea of choice—Gagin is presented with several alternatives by outside influences (including one who seems to know things others don’t on almost a clairvoyant level) but is, for the most part, doggedly determined to follow through on his original plan. That plan is disrupted on more than one occasion, and yet Gagin continues to march forward. Yet it is not a film of hopelessness; whereas so much film noir is about the deterioration of the hero’s soul (assuming he or she had one to begin with), Ride the Pink Horse seems more interested in salvation.
Long unavailable in any kind of high quality version, Ride the Pink Horse has received a very good HD upgrade from the good people at the Criterion Collection. Mastered from a new 2K scan, the 1080p transfer presents the black and white film in its original full frame Academy ratio and ranges from very good to downright stunning at times, with excellent contrast and deep, consistent black levels. Virtually all signs of age have been erased and detail is excellent throughout. The only available audio option is a lossless mono track, which delivers all of the dialogue clearly and removes the noticeable hiss that accompanies many older films (to be fair, I like the hiss).
Film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver provide a feature-length commentary over the film, talking about some of the production and going fairly in depth about the meanings behind Montgomery’s choices and some of the changes the film underwent on its journey to the screen. Also included are a 20-minute interview with film noir expert and author Imogen Sara Smith, who talks about the importance of Ride the Pink Horse and Montgomery’s contributions to the genre, plus a recording of the radio play adaptation featuring Montgomery, Hendrix and Gomez. Criterion’s usual extensive essay booklet is also included.
Don’t be fooled by the title: Ride the Pink Horse is tough, hard-boiled film noir, full of shadowy photography and great character actor performances (Thomas Gomez was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as Pancho, the carousel owner who gets caught up in Gagin’s business). It’s a very good movie made even better by virtue of the fact that it feels like it came out of nowhere—Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray release was my introduction to a film of which I was previously unaware. I can’t ask for more than that.