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Ride the Pink Horse (Blu-ray Review)

6 Apr, 2015 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Robert Montgomery, Wanda Hendrix, Thomas Gomez, Fred Clark.

An oddly beguiling genre scrambler that goes against a slew of grains, this cultist cause released in 1947 by what was then the recently reconstituted Universal-International seems to have been worthily undertaken by Criterion (even more than most of their selections) to make it more widely known to the general public. Adapted from a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes of In a Lonely Place renown, this is a film noir entry about redemption (and there aren’t many of those); an early undertaking by one of Hollywood’s first actor-turned directors; and a movie which on the one hand depends on a lot of dialogue yet is marvelously shot by a cinematographer who’d team with Orson Welles on Touch of Evil about a decade later (and in a not dissimilar story setting). Believe me, this one’s tough to define, though it was actually remade as one of the first made-for-TV movies: Don Siegel’s 1964 The Hanged Man.

Lead/director Robert Montgomery came back from the war with a good Navy record and the youth gone from his face, first helping out John Ford behind the camera on They Were Expendable when the latter suffered an on-set injury and then solo-directing Lady in the Lake — an honorably failed experiment solely photographed first-person style from the camera’s point of view, even though the key protagonist we see just once (reflected in a mirror) is the estimable Phillip Marlowe himself. But in this revenge drama, Montgomery is playing someone a lot less smooth: an amusingly crude WWII vet out to take on a New Mexico town’s most successful war profiteer without having too much of an idea of how he’s going to do it. Achieving some success (along with contusions) with little thanks going to himself, he comes to depend on three unlikely and newfound soul-mates: a Mexican teenager (Wanda Hendrix in a remarkable performance given her on-paper miscasting); a hand-to-mouth operator of a humble carousel (Thomas Gomez, who got a supporting Oscar nomination); and a folksy government agent whose looks suggest Harry Truman at a time when Truman was president (played by about-to-be-blacklisted A.T. Smith). This is another oddity here: Montgomery was a real-life conservative Republican who cooperated with HUAC and coached President Eisenhower’s TV appearances — yet appears to have worked most harmoniously worked with Smith, who was definitely of a different stripe.

The heavy here is a perfect Fred Clark: full of surface charm despite the fact that, objectively speaking, we know he’s scum from the get-go. Responsible for the death of Montgomery’s buddy (the motivation for the latter’s intended revenge), Clark is decked out in one of the strangest and most primitive hearing aid contraptions on screen record; it’s a kind of equivalent to that reel-to-reel wall recorder that detective Mike Hammer employs in Robert Aldrich’s all-timer of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly, an embryonic version of what later became the standard telephone answering machine. A corrupt smoothie used to having things his way, Clark wouldn’t be much without this hearing device or without the enforcer thugs who seem to be around with the snap of a finger (one of them played by John Doucette, an actor whose screen appearances always signified trouble — and, in Westerns, imminent punch-outs from Roy Rogers, whom he referred to as “Rod-juzz”).

The script is heavy on dialogue, but we’re talking prime cuts when it comes to nouns and verbs (Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer from His Girl Friday). The first time I saw Pink Horse on TV in a merely OK copy, I found it talky, but this luminous Criterion print has a visual component that previously eluded me; it’s Russell Metty at his best — and, as filmmaker/writer Michael Almereyda reminds us in the liner notes, we’re talking about the guy who shot Bringing Up Baby, Written on the Wind, Spartacus, The Misfits and Madigan. To me, the real revelation here is Hendrix, a Jacksonville starlet whose career peaked early around the time she divorced the severely troubled actor/war hero Audie Murphy (that union couldn’t have been easy). She was hardly an automatic choice, especially without much acting experience, to get cast as Montgomery’s adolescent “conscience,” but she never drops the ball. And this wasn’t her only strong screen impression; Andrew Sarris wrote a sweet appreciation of her when she died, noting how much he’d been melted by her title role performance in Miss Tatlock’s Millions, which, BTW, is one of the greatest comedies of the ’40s despite its mass-audience obscurity (if you doubt this, call up the imdb.com chat room on it sometime).

Beyond the essay, Criterion extras include voiceover commentary by ubiquitous noir pros Alain Silver and James Ursini; an interview with Imogen Sara Smith (author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City — which this certainly is); and a Lux Radio Theatre spinoff. The Smith segment is kind of a revelation in that there turn out to be far more non-city noirs than I’d previously assembled in my mind (Detour, Out of the Past and Gun Crazy are just three) and several dealing specifically with Mexican culture (though not as sympathetically as here). Silver and Ursini pick up on a lot of subtle details in the picture and note how Montgomery’s growing affection for the Hendrix character courted trouble from the lads enforcing the Production Code. Next to Cary Grant, Montgomery was, for my money, the screen’s best light comedian (though Robert Cummings would be close). Here, he gets to employ some of these tools displaying comical exasperation over his adolescent foil. If you want to stretch it a little, Montgomery’s next picture as a director — the funny and underrated May-December Once More, My Darling — is almost a companion piece to some of the scenes with Hendrix here. I wish that one could be rediscovered as well, but just itself this Pink Horse is a gift.

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