Saturday, July 29, 2023

#2,920. Ride the Pink Horse (1947) - Random Musings


Some of the most fascinating cinematic discoveries I’ve made the past few years have been film noirs (or is it films noir?). Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage. Ace in the Hole by Billy Wilder, and the John Stahl technicolor marvel Leave Her to Heaven. And that’s not the half of it. There have been plenty of others, movies that opened my eyes to an entire era, a style of filmmaking and storytelling that, when done right, can be hypnotic.

And now I can add Ride the Pink Horse to this already impressive list.

Directed by and starring Robert Montgomery, Ride the Pink Horse opens with its lead character, Gagin (Montgomery), stepping off a bus into the small New Mexico town of San Pablo. A yearly festival, which draws large crowds to the area, is set to begin that very night, but this isn’t what’s brought Gagin to San Pablo. He is there to see Frank Hugo (Fred Clark). Gagin, a WWII veteran with a less-than-friendly demeanor, has something he thinks Hugo wants and might pay handsomely to get.

In short, Gagin intends to blackmail the powerful Hugo, who was a VIP in Washington during the war. FBI Agent Bill Retz (Art Smith) intercepts Gagin before his meeting with Hugo, and tells him that the feds have been building a case against Hugo for years. Without knowing the particulars of his visit, Retz tries to coerce Gagin into cooperating him, but to no avail. Not even Hugo’s pretty, seemingly sympathetic girlfriend Marjorie (Andrea King) can convince Gagin to leave well enough alone, or at least protect himself from Hugo’s hired guns.

In fact, the only people who truly help Gagin out of a few tough spots are locals of San Pablo, including the young Pila (Wanda Hendrix), who sensed Gagin was in danger the moment she met him; and Pancho (Thomas Gomez), who operates a child’s merry-go-round and gives Gagin a place to stay when every hotel in town is booked solid.

And if he’s to have any chance of leaving San Pablo alive, Gagin may need even more help from his two new friends.

Montgomery delivers a solid performance as the cocky, no-nonsense Gagin, a guy we don’t particularly like in the first act. He is rude to Pila even when she helps him, and knocks out Hugo’s personal secretary Jonathan (Richard Gaines) when he tells the rude and obnoxious Gagin that Mr. Hugo is not in his hotel room, and that he cannot wait for him there. In the opening scenes, we aren’t even sure if Gagin is the hero or the villain of Ride the Pink Horse, and Montgomery’s approach to the role is what keeps us guessing.

But it’s Robert Montgomery’s work behind the camera that is even more spellbinding.

The film’s first scene, where Gagin arrives at the San Pablo bus depot, is an uninterrupted shot that runs for several minutes, in which we see him pull a gun from his luggage, place a piece of paper in a locker, then hide the locker’s key somewhere in the depot before walking out into the streets. The film will feature several flawlessly executed long takes, designed to either build the mystery (why is Gagin there?) or the tension (which becomes even more intense once we discover the reason for his visit).

Kudos also to both Hendrix and Gomez as the locals who do what they can to protect a stranger that, truth be told, didn’t give a damn about either one when he first met them. As for the story, it has enough twists and turns to keep us tuned in, and features one hell of a nerve-racking ending.

Ride the Pink Horse, like many of the film noirs (films noir) I mentioned above, is brilliant through and through. Don’t miss it.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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