Tuesday, February 9, 2016

#750: Ride the Pink Horse

(Robert Montgomery, 1947)

Ride the Pink Horse is the kind of movie that falls through the cracks in Criterion's release slate, but represents one of the best things the company has to offer. This is not an iconic work of world cinema, nor is it even a five-star or cult classic. But it is a decidedly quirky picture that carves out a relevant niche in noir history.

That it is noir is of relevance to Criterion, as they have dug particularly deep on this genre with pictures like Blast of Silence and a surprisingly wide range of Dassin's American films. Noir is obviously one of the definitive genres of the medium, and its intertwined history with the New Wave filmmakers like Godard who pushed for the recognition of the genre and incorporated its signifiers into their works makes it Criterion friendly. These were also often B movies, making their value in home video less apparent and therefore available to Criterion - which is also why unlike other major genres Criterion has almost none of the core definitive classics of the genre like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, or Out of the Past (though they do have Kiss Me Deadly and recently added the sort-of-noir Gilda, plus a wide range of foreign films that were either influences on the genre or inspired by it).

Ride the Pink Horse is similar to the other American noirs in the Collection in that it didn't have an especially high profile before its Criterion release, and really doesn't have much of one now, either. As a director, Robert Montgomery is probably best remembered for his debut, the Chandler-based noir The Lady of the Lake, one of the few movies to sustain a first-person POV for the entire film (Montgomery plays the famous Philip Marlowe in the movie, whom we see only through mirrors). It's a novelty that grows tiresome quickly, and I only made it through the film out of pure devotion to the idea of experiencing Chandler's work with such an unusual concept (one that Chandler himself didn't care for, unsurprisingly). Ride the Pink Horse, on the other hand, held my attention throughout, and while I don't think it's an unheralded masterpiece or anything, I have a hard time imagining any fan of noir having any serious problem with the movie.

One of my favorite things about the film is the opening. The credits roll over a desert scene matched with music that would be at home in any Western of the era. When combined with the horse in the title, it is a confusing opening for anyone convinced of the film's noir bonafides. Yet as the credits end a Greyhound bus comes roaring in and the camera pans into a town in the contemporary West. It starts the film off by subverting your expectations, a trick that comes in handy as the plot unfurls and people are not always what they seem.

Montgomery is not the best director in the world, but he was a solid leading man and he had a ton of top shelf help here, from the great Russell Metty behind the camera (who would go on to shoot the similar but significantly superior border noir Touch of Evil for Orson Welles) to a screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, two of the greatest writers in film history. The dialog is spectacular - really, I could watch this movie ten times just to take it all in and savor the great lines.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Ride the Pink Horse, though, is its depiction of Mexicans. Montgomery has an unfulfilled love affair with a younger woman who attempts to bridge the social divide (played in brownface with a Speedy Gonzalez accent by a white lady), but the stand out character is Pancho (the actor was, according to Criterion, the first Latino ever nominated for an Academy Award for this performance). Pancho carries plenty of the stereotypes of Mexicans, living the poor-but-happy life of an alcoholic who falls asleep under his sombrero. But he's also a stand-up guy with loyalty that survives intense and violent testing. Mexican characters don't often fare well in early border pictures (think even Charlton Heston playing a Mexican in Touch of Evil, one of the more regrettable elements of that classic), so even though Pancho often lacks the full three dimensions of humanity it's nice to see a lovable and honorable character like this in a film from the 1940s.

Ride the Pink Horse is unlikely to become anyone's favorite noir, but many of its defects are the very reasons why it would be easy to fall in love with it. The various stylistic choices (the wordless opening, the merry-go-round rough-up, etc) seem disjointed, in need of a steady hand to connect them that isn't really there. Similarly, the quirky bits of character and asides that are unrelated to the core plot hurt the momentum of the suspense, but are the exact moments that separate the movie from its noir cousins. There's a lot of talk about what the best or worst releases from Criterion are, but Ride the Pink Horse is unlikely to come up in either conversation. Instead, this little-seen previously unavailable blu-ray says a lot about Criterion's continued devotion not only to the classics or contemporary film, but to the history less traveled in order to give a better, fuller picture of what cinema is all about.

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