Revenge Travels South in 'Ride the Pink Horse'

This oft-overlooked desert noir illustrates the residual violence of post-war America, where paranoia and deception abound.

Ride the Pink Horse

Director: Robert Montgomery
Cast: Robert Montgomery, Thomas Gomez, Rita Conde, Iris Flores, Wanda Hendrix, Grandon Rhodes, Fred Clark'
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: NR
US Release Date: 2015-03-17

The moral ambiguity that is central to film noir is easily understood in light of the post-war period, a time that saw some of the finest examples of the genre brought to screens across the globe. Although the might of the Allied powers triumphed by the time World War II came to a close, the victory was one that left as much cause for terror and uncertainty as it did celebration. The world realized the atrocity of the Holocaust, an extermination that, for a long time, citizens were not fully cognizant of. The final major act of violence, the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan, may have won the Allies the war, but it remains both one of the greatest war crimes in human history for its indiscriminate killing of civilian populations and the precursor to what would become a tense Cold War environment that would last decades.

With moral maladies like those on the minds of both the general public and the governments of the world, it's no wonder that flicks like Ride the Pink Horse (1947) came to be. Like many other noirs, it involves men who have come back to America after serving in WWII, trying their best to figure out a world where wartime violence is not the norm. This conundrum was so common and understood at the time that those responsible for this film changed the backstory of the protagonist. In the novel from which it's based, Lucky Gagin (Robert Montgomery, also director) is a draft-dodger and a criminal; in the movie, he is an ex-military man embittered by the conflict he's just left.

Without the rigid hierarchy of the military to navigate, these former soldiers often find themselves ensconced in power structures that are seemingly aqueous and hard to traverse. Falling into rank with one's comrades is one thing; trying to find out who one's friends and enemies are is something else entirely. This is the situation that Gagin finds himself in when he arrives into a New Mexico desert town, one far removed from the rain-slicked alleys of the major cities that so frequently form the backdrop of noir films.

This setting is one of the many things that makes Ride the Pink Horse distinctive, both as an artifact of '40s and noir cinema. There are plenty of dingy bars and shadowy conversations here, but the environment of New Mexico and its Mexican population is underrepresented in other movies of the time. As Gagin walks off the bus and into the nearby train station, his perplexed facial expressions reveal just how much of an outsider he is: the city slicker coming to dust up his shoes in the lawless desert. Although the plotline he spearheads is a conventional and mostly uninteresting case of a tough guy out for payback, his tale is given a breath of life by this southland foreign to him.

"Lawless" here is no exaggeration; law enforcement is rarely seen throughout the story. Gagin's allies largely consist of local townsfolk, including Pancho (Thomas Gomez, the movie's ace in the hole) and Pila (Wanda Hendrix), who both take an interest in him not long after he arrives in town. His enemy, Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), is a mob boss responsible for ordering the killing of Gagin's friend for supposed business reasons. Like a soldier moving into enemy territory to take out a bloodthirsty general, Gagin voyages out to New Mexico to avenge his friend's death. But without any fellow troops beside him, Gagin finds himself in unfamiliar territory without a map, a compass, or a real plan of attack.

"A sweeping case of cross-generational PTSD boiled up in the war's wake," Michael Almereyda writes in his thorough essay included in the Criterion Collection edition of Ride the Pink Horse. This cultural psychic malady, for Almereyda, is "evidence of unhealed wounds, undigestef horror, plus the dawning prospect of nuclear annihilation." Such wounds are evident in the permanently perplexed look Gagin wears throughout the film; just as he doesn't understand the world he's left on the East Coast, nor does he understand all of the new forces at work in this small New Mexico town. The gregarious Pancho does his best to conjure convivial spirits when he spends time with Gagin, but he's only successful when copious amounts of tequila are involved.

For his turn as Pancho, Gomez was nominated for the Academy Award for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and deservedly so. His resolve and kindness both make him the beating heart of the movie and a much needed source of levity amidst the constant intrigue. However, it's Hendrix as Pila who becomes the locus for understanding Gagin's crisis in the desert.

Right from the outset, she is presented as something of a cipher. Her gaze is inquisitive yet blank; she stares at Gagin in near shock the first time she sees him, and after that she usually greets him with a flat demeanor. "There's something going on inside your head," Gagin says to her, "What's going on in there?" The audience is never clued in to her inner thoughts, but one thing is clear: she, like us, is trying to understand Gagin's predicament. When observing a man so torn asunder by various forces -- the desire for revenge, the attempt to assert power in a bleak post-war landscape -- it's hard to know exactly where he's going to land. In many ways, Pila represents the collective consciousness of post-war America, a nervous onlooker wondering how to piece together all that's happening in front of her.

Unfortunately, in the case of Ride the Pink Horse, part of what makes Gagin impenetrable, to both Pila and us, is Montgomery's performance, which is stiff and reserved even for a noir antihero. When he's gunning straight for Hugo, armed with a pistol and the occasional dry quip, he's an effective protagonist. Elsewhere, Gagin is far less interesting than his supporting players, whom he nonetheless serves as an effective springboard for. Whether it's Pila's prying eyes or Pancho's gales of belly laughter, Gagin's stodgy demeanor proves an effective foil.

As a director, however, Montgomery proves quite apt. He benefits from a solid script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, but most of all from the film's unique setting in New Mexico. The desert is an atyptical setting for noir cinema, but in many ways it's quite effective, a venue that writers and directors alike ought to pursue more. In Montgomery's vision for Ride the Pink Horse, the desert is something of a no-man's land where ,in spite of all the saloons, fiestas, and carnival wheels (the latter of which is the location of the titular pink horse), it's ultimately a confluence of atomized individuals, all of whom are struggling to get by.

It's fascinating, then, that Ride the Pink Horse ends the way it does. Parallel to Gagin's attempts to exact revenge on Hugo is Retz's (Art Smith) pursuing of Hugo. Retz is a federal law agent who knows what Gagin is up to; he attempts to link their mutual ends, although of course Gagin wants justice done outside of the law. Once Gagin finally faces Hugo down, though, after being nearly killed by two of Hugo's goons, he gives the mob boss up to Retz, trading the blood-soaked path of noir revenge for the right side of the law.

Like this ending, atypical for film noir, Ride the Pink Horse is a strange little film. Its plot is far less interesting than its quirky cast of characters and its New Mexico environs. Although uncertainty and disquietude are regular features of noir, like Pila we're constantly wondering what Gagin's story exactly is -- and it's ultimately never given to us. Other than revenge, that most ubiquitous of noir motives, Gagin's desires elude us. Yet all of these eccentricities, when taken together, make up a fascinating if flawed post-war noir.


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