“There’s something going on inside your head. What’s going on in there?”
—Lucky (Robert Montgomery) to Pila (Wanda Hendrix) in Ride the Pink Horse
Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1946 novel provides the atmosphere, the setting, the setup: an implacable thug, wading through rising levels of desperation and fear, is stupid enough to think he can glide into a dingy New Mexican resort town to blackmail the rich and powerful man responsible for his friend’s death. Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film version of Ride the Pink Horse stretches this premise to accommodate a heightened admission of postwar anxiety and despair, ingredients fundamental to all film noir, though Montgomery’s movie is, like its title, an oddity, engagingly off-kilter—at once gritty and gemlike, jaunty and doom-laden. Montgomery directed himself as the unlucky protagonist, whom ace screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer outfitted with a new name—Lucky Gagin (replacing simply Sailor in the book)—and changed from a draft-dodging career criminal into an embittered World War II vet, at sea in peacetime, carrying his service revolver in a country that can never feel like home.
A left-leaning tilt arrives with these shifts, merging with the class and race consciousness in Hughes’s book, embodied by the yearly fiesta that has the town stuffed with celebrating tourists while Lucky pursues his grim business and destitute locals look on. Montgomery had, as an actor, been a veteran of countless screwball comedies before himself entering the war. For Ride the Pink Horse, he ditched his customary screen persona, taking pains to scrape away his usual polish, converting himself into something of a lout, an impudent sorehead. Abrasive, stiff, tense, and terse, Lucky allows himself a smile only in the company of Pancho (Thomas Gomez), a big-bellied, silver-tongued drunk, proprietor of the carousel that gives the movie its name. Pancho is instantly besotted with Lucky after encountering the gringo and his money in a cantina where all the customers are dark-skinned. “Amigo, you are the blood of my heart!” Gomez delivers his lines with immense wit and warmth; his Falstaffian performance—which earned an Oscar nomination—transcends the sentimental Frito Bandito subspecies of Mexican salt-of-the-earth clichés.
Lucky’s other local protector, Pila, a radiantly clueless country girl, is more unclassifiable and poignant. Eighteen-year-old Wanda Hendrix, a Florida native with Irish and Welsh roots, could hardly have been the obvious choice for the role, but it’s hard to imagine an actress more committed and captivating—at once earnest and comic—as she describes a vision of Lucky’s death, then moves through the rest of the film rescuing him from the actualization of that vision. Pila is magical—Hendrix makes her so, registering a mix of innocence, empathy, and bottled-up hysteria. It’s moving, in the story’s final stretch, to watch Lucky, disabled and delirious, leaning on this child-woman half his size, and to see how capably and fiercely she defends him.
“You know, Gagin, I like you. There are two kinds of people in the world: ones that fiddle around worrying whether a thing’s right or wrong, and guys like us.”
—Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) in Ride the Pink Horse
A sweeping case of cross-generational PTSD boiled up in the war’s wake—evidence of unhealed wounds, undigested horror, plus the dawning prospect of nuclear annihilation. Idealism was abruptly inadequate, defunct, displaced by a brutal what’s-in-it-for-me? grabbiness, a unilateral corruption of the soul. This is the background music haunting most film noirs, and in Ride the Pink Horse, it takes on a shiver of existential absurdity, showing up most insistently in images of fiesta revelry and the ritual parading of Zozobra, God of Bad Luck, a nine-foot-tall papier-mâché figure with spindly mantis arms and a flapping mouth—plainly a studio-manufactured prop, but no less striking for that. Zozobra is burned every year, only to be reborn. Bad luck, as Pancho cheerfully explains and the movie amply demonstrates, is bottomless, unkillable. Montgomery, as director, dissolves from the effigy’s open maw to the story’s villain, the hearty vulture whom our antihero is trying to shake down, a man shoveling food into his mouth in anticipation of Lucky’s death.
This is Frank Hugo, a plebeian war profiteer whom Hecht and Lederer conjured from the wife-murdering senator Willis Douglass in Hughes’s book (“a scrawny turkey wrapped in a black and a maroon satin striped bathrobe”). As played by Fred Clark, bald and looming, he has a slouching swagger, his confidence unhindered by a hearing defect that’s never commented on or explained. Part of the unsettling energy of Clark’s performance is keyed to his agility in flipping a phone receiver up to the hearing aid in his breast pocket, barking out dialogue with a weird blend of confidence and irritation.
Another script enhancement involves Hugo’s lawful nemesis, on hand to nail the racketeer and divert Lucky from his worst instincts. Mac, the bland, ostentatiously good Chicago cop in the novel, morphs into Retz (Art Smith), an older government agent possessing the tight smile, wire-rimmed specs, and folksy cunning of Harry Truman. Retz is supplied with pungent dialogue—“I like to eat with my hands. It gets me closer to the food”—while sounding a note of patient good sense and what could almost be called optimism amid the movie’s gathering mayhem. In any event, snappy patter from multiple characters—a Hecht-Lederer specialty—is leveraged throughout the film against stark violence and the expectation of a dire outcome.
“This one looks a little dead.”
“Couldn’t be deader.”
—Two policemen bantering in Ride the Pink Horse
We can deduce that Montgomery received profound guidance from the extraordinary Russell Metty, among the greatest of Hollywood cameramen. (What do Bringing Up Baby, Written on the Wind, Spartacus, The Misfits, and Madigan all have in common? You guessed it.) Metty’s camera distills the feverish quality of Hughes’s prose, the protagonist’s paranoia, his sense of being mired in a dirty, alien place—unwashed, unwanted, uncomprehending. There are meticulously sustained crane shots—in the threadbare bus station and in the parade-crowded streets—that anticipate the daring choreography in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, the ultimate border noir, which Metty shot eleven years later. Two set pieces involving the carousel are particularly powerful, with the camera riding the revolving machine—a ready-made symbol for fate, of course, but also, more simply, an unnerving vantage for watching the world whirl by while a helpless man gets thrashed and kicked along the dusty perimeter. Here and throughout, the movie shines with directorial tact, nasty action often played off the faces of willing or unwilling witnesses.
Undoubtedly, producer Joan Harrison also had a hand in delivering the pleasures and surprises layered into this movie, for which various sources grant her a ghostwriting credit—a credible notion, as she was a coscreenwriter on five Hitchcock films, his last in England and his early Hollywood forays: Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, and Saboteur. Having worked for Hitchcock as secretary and script reader at a tender age, Harrison had traveled across the Atlantic with him, and later became a producer at Universal—one of very few women in the studio system entrusted with the job. (Photos from the period show her looking breezy and glamorous, decked out in the kind of shimmery, square-shouldered ensemble favored by Frank Hugo’s pert and treacherous girlfriend, the nicely named Marjorie Lundeen.)
The upshot is that an arsenal of top-notch talent was poured into this picture, creating the kind of anomaly that knocks the auteur theory a bit sideways: the lowly B movie that unexpectedly lifts and soars like a kite in high wind.
Another man who evidently learned a tremendous amount through the war is Robert Montgomery, whose sober, light, sure performance is, so far as I can remember, the one perfection to turn up in movies during the year.
—James Agee on They Were Expendable, January 5, 1946
In the history of war movies—in the history of cinema—it would be hard to find a more persuasive low-key portrait of virtue and valor than Robert Montgomery’s portrayal of an embattled PT boat commander in John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945). It was Montgomery’s first acting job after the war, during which he served in the Navy, rising to lieutenant commander on a ship participating in the D-day invasion. Toward the end of the Expendable shoot, Ford fell from a camera scaffolding, broke a leg, and landed in the hospital, from where he peremptorily enlisted Montgomery to direct a few scenes in his absence—uncredited work that flows seamlessly within the rest of the picture, which happens to be one of Ford’s finest. And so, at age forty-one, a film director was born.
Montgomery’s first full-fledged directing job followed soon after: the famously stilted 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, a fascinating failed experiment in which nearly every camera angle delivers the protagonist’s point of view, making Philip Marlowe (Montgomery himself) invisible for most of the movie, glimpsed only occasionally in mirrors, while supporting players rattle through dialogue spoken directly to the camera.
Orson Welles had planned a similar approach for one of his earliest film projects, Heart of Darkness, switching to Citizen Kane when the Joseph Conrad adaptation proved too expensive. It’s safe to say that Montgomery didn’t have Welles’s innate ingenuity behind the camera, but he had courage; Lady in the Lake is almost stupefyingly stiff but adventurous throughout, employing long takes in real time while daringly eliminating conventional film music. (It’s not clear how or why Montgomery recruited his director of photography on Pink Horse, but it’s intriguing to note that Metty had worked on Citizen Kane and shot the inglorious replacement scenes inserted against Welles’s wishes into The Magnificent Ambersons, and that Welles was nevertheless sufficiently impressed with Metty to hire him for The Stranger in 1946.)
Montgomery and his colleagues, and many other sensational noirs of this period, were not alone in addressing the traumatized soul of the returning World War II vet. The top box-office hit of 1946, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, centered on three GIs trying to reintegrate themselves into middle-class civilian life. Among the seven Oscars awarded to Wyler’s film, best supporting actor went to Harold Russell, an authentic ex-GI who had lost his hands in the war. It would make a rich double bill, The Best Years of Our Lives with Ride the Pink Horse. The latter is, of course, more sordid, irreverent, imperfect, and surreal, but also, just possibly, more true to life.
Sadly, the continuation of Montgomery’s directing career did not span a heroic arc. In Your Witness (1950), Montgomery starred as another World War II vet uncomfortably confronting postwar reality, this time a fish out of water in England. Once more, Joan Harrison produced and contributed to the script, but Montgomery’s more illustrious Pink Horse collaborators were not on the job, and the resulting movie is as insipid as Ride the Pink Horse is inspired. In the interim, Montgomery had become active in Republican politics, delivering testimony as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. The TV series Robert Montgomery Presents kept him busy throughout the 1950s, during which he also took on an unprecedented, unpaid consulting job in Eisenhower’s White House, coaching the president for appearances before TV cameras. (And no assessment of Montgomery’s contribution to American culture should exclude mention of his daughter, the dazzling Elizabeth Montgomery, who trained at Elia Kazan’s Actors Studio before achieving iconic stature as Samantha on the television series Bewitched.)
What is all this? I know how furiously your heart is beating.
—Wallace Stevens, “Gray Room”
Love seems all but irrelevant in the world of this film. Lucky gets knifed while lighting a cigarette for the resident femme fatale. A few scenes earlier, the tough guy laconically admits he’s been betrayed by a dame, ditched for a man with more dough. “Dead fish with a lot of perfume on ’em” is Lucky’s description of women like Marjorie Lundeen. “You touch ’em, and you always get stung. You always lose.”
The merest hint of romance between Lucky and Pila is continually, refreshingly squelched. Lucky snorts offhand insults at her at every turn, letting up only when he’s near death, and Pancho consistently complains that the girl is too skinny. All the same, what gets communicated in looks between Montgomery and Hendrix—an unspoken fascination and steady, moment-to-moment sizing up—creates an emotional current that figures as one of the film’s most stirring aspects, a delicate, impossible, undeclared bond that’s both confirmed and eclipsed when the filmmakers take the story past a predictable finish.
Spoiler alert: we are about to discuss the ending.
Hughes concludes her novel with successive jolts of violence. Sailor shoots Senator Douglass in furious self-defense, then, resisting arrest, impulsively guns down Mac and runs into the desert, blindly weeping. Montgomery, guided by Hecht and Lederer, resists this absolute bleakness.
After facing Lucky with a devastatingly dignified “Good-bye, señor,” and receiving in return a tender but chaste kiss, just a few inches left of her mouth, Pila watches him walk out of her life, while she, the friendless social misfit, is suddenly surrounded by a swarm of local admirers. The camera stays on Wanda Hendrix’s grave, shining face as she narrates highlights of the story we’ve just seen, in rapid-fire Spanish and English, pantomiming how she smashed a tequila bottle across the cranium of Hugo’s henchman, her eyes catching fire as she seems to realize that this is now her story and that, in retelling it, she’s participating in a mystery, a myth, that radiates beyond herself. Hendrix’s Pila takes her place as an unlikely precursor to the narrators of Terrence Malick’s first two films—Badlands and Days of Heaven—a trash-talking adolescent with access to the wisdom of the ages, blabbing her way around the edges of eternity. As if the whole movie, in its vivid display of cruelty and kindness, desperation and beauty, has been unfolding in her unfathomable head.