(Criterion) Filmed directly after Robert Montgomery’s extraordinarily gimmicky first-person POV adaptation of Chandler’s THE LADY OF THE LAKE, Montgomery jumped back in the noir saddle again with an adept take on the lesser-known Dorothy B. Hughes (IN A LONELY PLACE, THE EXPENDABLE MAN) novel RIDE THE PINK HORSE. This adaptation doesn’t try anything fancy — no first-person perspectives here, just quality lighting and framing. While it alters Hughes’ gritty noir in a handful of places, it mostly follows a similar path for the same purpose until, well, it doesn’t.
The story is simple: a stranger known as Gagin (Robert Montgomery, directing himself) arrives in San Pablo, New Mexico, looking for a mobster named Frank Hugo.
Unfortunately, Gagin arrives in San Pablo during its annual weekend-long fiesta. The streets are packed with people partying and every single hotel is booked, turning what Gagin thought would be a simple overnight act of catharsis into a sleepless game of endless pursuit, which only grows more surreal when he encounters an FBI agent from his past.
One can’t discuss RIDE THE PINK HORSE without noting that, given it’s a late-1940s production depicting indigenous festivities, they didn’t really take the time to get it right which, sadly, contrasts with Hughes’ novel, explicitly drawn from her time spent in Santa Fe. The brownfacing of Wanda Hendrix of is especially egregious, not to mention she’s also far too old for the role. (She’s a pre-teen in the novel and the film’s script tries to abide by that, but Montgomery’s gaze says otherwise.) Regardless, she still manages to steal just about every scene she appears in, as does Thomas Gomez who plays Gagin’s guide.
While the performances are top-notch, it’s the overstuffed frames from cinematographer Russell Metty (who at this point had shot many classics, but would also go on to shoot TOUCH OF EVIL and SPARTACUS) that really bring RIDE THE PINK HORSE to another level. Cramped and sweaty, Metty is able to deftly handle shooting a noir that often takes place in broad daylight.
One last qualm about the adaptation: my favorite part of the novel is that the protagonist is essentially homeless and constantly fretting about his appearance, wondering how he’ll clean himself up, trying to hustle his way into bathrooms or temporarily empty hotel rooms. Sadly, this facet is mostly lost in the film.
“That’s the kind of man I like — the man with no place!”
If you’d like a bit more background, Eddie Muller’s TCM Noir Alley introduction is well worth five minutes of your time: