Ride The Pink Horse (1947)

Ride the Pink Horse is a one of a kind film noir, starring and directed by Robert Montgomery, who had got the hang of the medium enough to jam out this hard 1947 thriller.

Ride the Pink Horse is a jam, in its capacity to mix and ferment and develop a few new tropes. Film noir not only comes back from World War Two here, but it goes south towards the border, and finds itself down New Mexico way. 

Revenge, blackmail, innocence, experience and cultures clash, and all with an almost unique new flavour, as Robert Montgomery's ambitious direction pays off.

The walking California Redwood style performance from Robert Montgomery suits the dream-like quality of the environment his character Lucky Gagin enters. Luck is in fact a theme, as it always is with crime, and other games of chance.

As in its best, film noir is a dream, or presents its dilemmas and encounters in as much dream language as can be mustered. The carousel with the pink horse in Ride The Pink Horse is one example of many. 

The pink horse of the title serves to reinforce the idea that the romantic lead in this film, Wanda Hendrix, is in fact a child. There are after all properly seasoned and fully adult women in this film noir, the lead being played by Rita Conde. 

Rita Conde in Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

The Personification of Uncle Sam
Ride The Pink Horse (1947)

Robert Montgomery in Ride The Pink Horse (1947)

Drink 'Em Up!

Smoke 'Em Up!

Whiskey versus Tequilla Culture Jam New Mexico (1947)
film noir Ride The Pink Horse 

"Too bad your pal Shorty turned out to be a crook.
Got himself all crumbed-up reaching for easy money."

Rita Conde's appearance in fact signals film noir maturity in its approach to the sexes. She is first of all available to the male lead, as soon as she appears, and we know this because she asks him to dine with her; a further signpost on the dream noir landscape, because here the woman are often stronger. 

Next up, she is initially not bothered with violence, as she encounters the body of the thug Lucky Gagin has just sapped. And it seems to draw her interest.

Man and girl - Robert Montgomery and Wanda Hendrix
Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Of course finally she wears the attire of the nightclub, or some other evening wear, unlike Wanda Hendrix's character Pila, whom appears in peasant attire, and clearly a featureless child - - playing with a doll if the message were not strong enough.

Rita Conde's character contrives the femme fatale, however, a woman from the school of hard knocks, and typical of many a film noir.

Rita Conde in Ride The Pink Horse (1947)

New Mexico 'society' in Ride The Pink Horse (1947)

Recovery by alcohol in film noir. Wanda Hendrix mothers Robert Montgomery with the bottle in
Ride The Pink Horse (1947)

As Gagin proceeds through this private process, his own little war, his own physical state deteriorates as he is hurt more and more, and this is the most interesting aspect of the film. He is stabbed and beaten and then relies on the help of others to save his life ― in fact he has very little agency at all for much of the film, and is a half dead man, carried from place to place. 

The last quarter of the film is dominated by the moral purging effected by Gagin's torture. Gagin leaves the dream at this point and interestingly remains barely conscious for much of the remainder. This film noir is a dream even to its anti-hero.

After Gagin is badly injured in a stabbing, the journey becomes something akin to a behind-enemy-lines story, with the blackmailing veteran having to rely on the kindness of Pila and Pancho, who help him by hiding him in the carousel. Now he rides the pink horse, bleeding out of his back and close to death.

Thomas Gomez as Pancho in New Mexico film noir
Ride The Pink Horse (1947)

At the end Gagin remembers none of it, a mental wipe that is suggestive of the magical properties his journey may have had. This is a contrast with the overcoming hero of the average war film, and the struggles of the urban protagonist in the more regular examples of the film noir cycle. It is a way of stretching the war metaphor even further ― the story of one man’s battle in an unknown territory to avenge a wrong we know very little about, through actions he has instigated but not actually seen though.

There is depth in Ride the Pink Horse, and the story is unrelenting. Lower class people ― especially in the form of Pila and Pancho, fighting against money and power is one of the themes in the film.

The carousel is certainly symbolic of all human activities going around and around, with us all ultimately winding up where you began. And it's not free, as Pancho points out. The price one pays for the ride is up to the individual, and for Gagin, half dead and unsure if his trip was worth the effort, the question is about whether he has any principles or whether he is just going to be a common blackmailer.

Gagin is in fact saved from the war he has found for himself by his inability to act, and it’s a fairly sound message for its day ― one should preferably leave well alone. What is remarkable is that it is the strange otherworldly culture of Mexico that saves him, and the poorest people in that culture, simply as an act of good will. 

The theatre of war may be brutal ― but film noir likes to illustrate that compared to the vagaries and violence of the urban scene, it is essentially straightforward. The enemy is easily demarcated and often wears a uniform. The uniform of the villains in civilian life, is often that of the business person, or the nightclub singer.

The landscape of war is similarly easy to navigate. It may be hard for a troupe of soldiers to get from A to B on a messy war time mission ― but the point is they will know where they are ― and at least they have a mission.

The clarity of war is something that aches away in the confused soul of the film noir hero. It’s the same with that confused soul’s mission, as it is with his comrades. The former soldier, finding himself at a loss in the post-war world, is alone ― doesn’t know who to trust ― and sometimes doesn’t even know what his mission is.

On the run in New Mexico
Robert Montgomery and Wanda Hendrix in Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

MGM, where Robert Montgomery directed and starred in Lady in the Lake, were not supportive of Montgomery directing the films he starred in, and so that is why he left them and this film was released by Universal International. 

Montgomery set up his own studio, Neptune Productions, with Joan Harrison, one of the few female producers in Hollywood ― Joan Harrison had learned the movie business as a protégé to Alfred Hitchcock, and did specialise in movies of suspense, or psychological films. 

She had left Universal after her follow up to her success with Phantom Lady, and with RKO made the excellent They Won’t Believe Me. 

In the world stylised by film noir, everyone is a potential clue, and a potential enemy. This lone soldier has no squad to back him up, and no commander with a clear instruction as to what to achieve, and who to kill. One can’t even kill in an urban of film noir setting, without getting into trouble. The impunity of murder is something that carries most uneasily out of World War 2 and into film noir.

The theme of the serviceman returning is common to film noir, but not the setting of rural New Mexico. Generally, when the serviceman returns, as in The Crooked Way, one of the finest examples of the returning serviceman sub-genre, the man will find his sweetheart has been unfaithful, or will find that his buddy has been lost or killed, or otherwise corrupted by crime perhaps.

The back story to Ride The Pink Horse follows this to the letter T. The former soldier known as Gagin, played by Robert Montgomery ― and describes himself to the Mexican locals in the film, tellingly as ‘the man with no place’ ― is on the confused and winding trail of his former buddy, who has been killed.

Robert Montgomery who certainly offers unique direction, plays up the film noir style just as it is probably about becoming first noticed, or even codified. Check the snappy dialogue, and check how many times he films himself in hat and silhouette; check his open tracking shot which is balletic, even for 1947.

Montgomery ahs this way of walking shiftily around, and he is not afraid to smile, enjoying hovering between hard and silent, and somehow a moral actor too. He plays the man on the mission well, and it turns out the friend he has come to avenge had turned blackmailer and met what may have been a well-deserved end. 

Lucky Gagin also has a snappy line in dialogue:

"I'm nobody's friend. The man with no place."


"She has a dead fish where her heart ought to be."

His plan is to blackmail a mobster known as Frank Hugo ― played by Fred Clark ― as revenge for his friend’s death, although things become murky and increasingly more violent as his plan starts to unwind on him.

Further unwinding goes on within Gagin’s relationship to the young Mexican girl Pila, played by Wanda Hendrix. This is far from a usual love interest, and in fact Pila presents as a little girl, which she perhaps is. Gagin does leave Mexico by tenderly kissing her on the cheek, and instead of love interest, it is much more helpful to think of Pila as a kind of angel ― Wanda Hendrix was 17 when the film was shot, but her character Pila would seem to the viewer to be barely a teenager.

Instead she is a kind of angel ― at first offering him a lucky charm, in the form of a doll called 'the charm of Ishtam' ― but is actually her own protection that he ends up relying on. The strange title of the film belongs also to Pila ― and refers to a horse on a village carousel ― leaving commentators no option to say something like: “much of the action revolves around a carousel”.

Pila then is more magic than she is anything else, something more suited to the unusual rural Mexican setting. The metaphors in Ride The Pink Horse are harder to unpick then they are in a more traditional film noir. The otherness of the conflict zone, normally a threatening, dark and confusing urban landscape is replaced by the other-worldliness of New Mexico ― and Gagin, in the shape of Robert Montgomery is not there for tourism. For him it is another theatre of war.

The carousel itself is tougher yet to decode, but it is of course fundamentally an attraction for children. When he is nearly dead, this is where Gagin hides, but he is not able to conceal himself. It is Pila who hides him, along with the carousel owner Pancho ― and in one of the more outrageous acts of violence, Pancho is savagely beaten for his trouble ― for no reason at all in fact.

Dorothy B Hughes was the writer of the best-seller Ride The Pink Horse, which can see right past stereotypical depictions of Latin America and its communities, as well as liberal, like its producer Joan Harrison ― and unlike its star and director, the notoriously anti-communist Robert Montgomery.

It’s a book and a movie in which tourists, cops, crooks, and the revenge-driven war veteran are all intruders in an old old world, that is quite innocent and at peace with itself and its ways. 

. . .  film noir

Thomas Gomez became the first Hispanic actor to be nominated for an Academy Award ― here for best supporting actor ― Joan Harrison wrote the first draft of the script, Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, who write great well paced films, with that old fashioned snappy dialogue.

Shooting did take place in the La Fonda Hotel Santa Fe which does feature large in the novel. 

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