Ride the Pink Horse

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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

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