Thursday, October 2, 2008


I have mixed emotions about "Ride the Pink Horse." This post-World War II melodrama about a former serviceman builds up a full head of steam but somewhere in its last half-hour its momentum deteriorates and it lacks closure. Perhaps its star/director Robert Montgomery sought to achieve something different with what essentially constituted a B-movie thriller. After two hoodlums beat up and stab the hero in a fight shrouded in the shadows, the action slackens and loses its edge. For example, we never get to see the villain get his comeuppance. He is simply never seen again. Of course, the FBI get the goods on him, but we never get to see him suffer as in take a bullet in the belly. The last thing applies to the femme fatale that Andrea King plays with vigor. I wanted to see her character get a bottle of bourbon smashed over her greedy little noggin. Comparisons may not be appropriate, but the Humphrey Bogart thriller "Dead Reckoning" is much better.

On the other hand, star/director Robert Montgomery had acquired a reputation for doing things differently. Montgomery's Philip Marlowe thriller "The Lady in the Lake" was an unsuccessful Raymond Chandler mystery, but it's first person approach set it aside from everything else ever made and makes tripe like "Cloverfield" look amateurish by comparison. The first hour of "Ride the Pink Horse" is superb. Gagin isn't really a hero, but you like him because he is squaring off against a wealthy, ruthless adversary. Montgomery plays Gagin as part hardhead and part hero. He isn't really behaving like a straight-up, clean-cut, churchgoer. He totes an automatic pistol and he is pretty savvy until he gets over his head with the bad guys. Hugo (Fred C. Clark in a non-comedic role as the bad guy) wears a hearing device. We're never given any information about the gizmo, but in some way it makes him seem sinister. Hugo is supposed to be a millionaire according to one character and he isn't easily frightened by World War II veteran Gagin. The neatest touch in the entire film occurs when Montgomery does a lap dissolve from Hugo chewing on a steak to a monstrous doll, the symbol of bad luck, being paraded through the town as part of the fiesta.

The movie was based on a Dorothy B. Hughes novel and Hollywood heavyweights Ben "The Front Page" Hecht penned the script with Charles Lederer. Thomas Gomez makes quite an impression as a Hispanic who runs a merry-go around. The film derives its title from this merry-go around and at one point our battered hero has to ride it. In the background, an FBI agent (Art Smith in a fatherly figure role) watches over Gagin and genuinely wants to help him because Gagin, who is shaking down Hugo for $30 grand, can help him make his case against the villain. Wanda Hendrix as Pila, a Mexican girl who comes to Gagin's aid, gives a very good performance. She learns a little about life from the hard boiled Gagin who teaches her what a dame or a babe is: a woman with a heart like a cold fish that cares about nothing but herself. Andrea King does an exceptional job as a semi-femme fatale. Again, I wanted to see her get what she so richly deserved. Although Hollywood was handling darker topics at the time, the Production Code was still being enforced so that nothing really bad that should have happened to her did happen to her. There's a neat little scene in the latter half of the film when Pila hides Gagin on the merry-go around like Pancho (Gomez in an Oscar nominated role) takes a beating from two of Hugo's hoods. The camera is focused on the foreground with Pila hiding Gagin while in the background we catch a glimpse of the strong arm guys giving it to Pancho.

As I said, "Ride the Pink Horse" (**1/2 out of ****) is four stars up until Gagin gets knifed and then it turns into a two star movie with an ending that lacks closure.

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