Ride the Pink Horse
RIDE THE PINK HORSE, drama, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3 chiles
Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film noir Ride the Pink Horse is the only movie in the history of the American cinema in which Zozobra stands as a symbol for a doomed hero while bungling the protagonist’s plan to exact revenge.
Shot mostly on the Universal back lot — but with a few sequences filmed in Santa Fe and its historic La Fonda — the film, based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel of the same name, takes place in the fictional New Mexico town of San Pablo. Montgomery, who directed the film, also plays its cynical anti-hero, a World War II veteran who plots to avenge his buddy’s death by blackmailing the war profiteer responsible for the killing. But his timing couldn’t be worse, as the town is celebrating its annual Fiesta, which concludes with the burning of Zozobra — and our heartless sap can’t even get a hotel room. The Jean Cocteau Cinema screens Criterion’s newly restored digital copy of the film from Friday, Sept. 4, through Thursday, Sept. 17, to coincide with Fiesta de Santa Fe. It screens with Vivan las Fiestas, a short film about Santa Fe Fiestas by Tom McCarthy.
Jon Bowman, executive director of the Jean Cocteau and author of 100 Years of Filmmaking in New Mexico, said Ride the Pink Horse is one of the few films to be shot in the Santa Fe area during the ’40s. “So any local hint of color or flavor of historic Santa Fe comes from this movie.” Bowman sees the film’s setting — an arid Southwestern town of Hispanic heritage dominated by rich Anglos — as unique within the genre, in which films are “mostly set in cities or urban environments with concrete, alleyways, bars. It is the exception to that rule.”
Montgomery’s character — called Sailor in the novel and Gagin in the film — initially has scorn for the Hispanics who populate the back alleys of San Pablo, until their humanity and ties to the land and culture slowly win him over. They not only save him from a near-fatal assault but lead him toward a moral and spiritual redemption.
A central feature of that journey is the historic Tío Vivo Carousel, owned and operated by the Taos Lions Club since 1939. The carousel offers the war veteran a place of solace, protection, and community. That is where he tells the young Mexican waif who becomes his protector — Pila, played by Wanda Hendrix, an actress whose film career inexplicably stalled by the mid-1950s — to ride the pink horse. For her, such a choice can lead to life changes. For Gagin, it’s just a matter of picking one color over another. Universal paid $2000 to the Lions Club for the use of the carousel, including a fee for its caretaker. The studio shipped the carousel out to Hollywood for use during the production, and then returned it.
Montgomery was best known for playing affable comedic leads, along the lines of Ray Milland and Fred MacMurray, in assembly-line offerings from MGM in the 1930s and 1940s. He once said that actors had to keep trying new things to stay in the business, and he had already stepped far outside of his comfort zone by playing the role of a serial murderer
in 1937’s Night Must Fall. In 1945, he briefly took over as director for an ailing John Ford on the World War II naval drama They Were Expendable and decided he liked the job. His full-length-feature directorial debut was the private-eye film Lady in the Lake ,in which he played Raymond Chandler’s famed detective Philip Marlowe. Produced by MGM in 1946 and released early in 1947, the picture earned a reputation as being the first to show all the film’s action from the point of view of its protagonist — a gimmick that wears thin fast.
With Ride the Pink Horse, Montgomery, working with producer Joan Harrison and cinematographer Russell Metty, took a more straightforward approach to the material, reveling in the black and white shadows of the high-desert underworld and lengthy one-shot sequences that add tension and mystery to Gagin’s story. Harrison was one of the few female producers in Hollywood at that time. She had worked for Alfred Hitchcock and met Montgomery on the set of Hitchcock’s 1941 farce Mr. and Mrs. Smith. She hired Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer to write the script for Ride the Pink Horse, perhaps contributing some uncredited material to it as well. The last third of the film differs considerably from Hughes’ novel, eschewing the novel’s grim finale and allowing Pila to take center stage as she leads Gagin out of the dark world of noir.
Noir historian and author Eddie Muller compared Ride the Pink Horse to a samurai film: “It is more like Yojimbo than a typical noir where the guy is on the run. He’s the pursuer here.” Muller said that he is not a fan of Montgomery’s work in the film. “I wish he had cast someone else — John Garfield or Robert Mitchum or somebody with a little more gravitas.” He said that during the nearly 20 years that he has run San Francisco’s Noir City Film Festival, he has been unable to obtain a good print of the film for screening until this past spring. “It’s a film that has fallen off the radar for a number of years. I’m not entirely sure why.” Muller said Harrison may have been instrumental in ensuring that Hughes’ commentary about the treatment of indigenous people in post-war America comes through in the film version: “You see a sense of corruption coming with American society as it sweeps over the Southwest.”
The film is notable as the first in which a Latino actor — Thomas Gomez, as the man who operates the carousel — was nominated for an Academy Award. Edmund Gwenn took the Oscar for best supporting actor home that year for his work as Kris Kringle in the holiday favorite Miracle on 34th Street — a tough act to beat.
As Zozobra is carted off toward its demise in the film, Gagin sees his own plans going up in flames. His prey, the corrupt and affable villain Hugo (played by Fred Clark as the human embodiment of Zozobra), tells Gagin, “People are only interested in one thing: the payoff.” And that’s what noir is mostly about. But unlike his counterpart in Hughes’ novel, Montgomery’s Gagin comes to realize that payoffs don’t always come in the form of money. In this case, that pink horse carries hope on its back.
Bienvenidos: actor and director Robert Montgomery
Above, left, Montgomery, Hendrix, and Gomez; above, from top, Zozobra; Nash’s Carousel; and Wanda Hendrix