Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

If it wasn't for its sole Academy Award nomination, Ride the Pink Horse would be completely obscure today. Thomas Gomez and his well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nod notwithstanding, this is a film that few people have even heard of, let alone seen.

Perhaps it is because the script and the characters at first seem so strange. After the bewildering first half hour, everything comes together. But by then, stray viewers who don't care for confusion will probably have turned their attention elsewhere.

The questions begin with our protagonist. Robert Montgomery, who also directed, stars as Lucky Gagin. He is a drifter left unemployed by the war, who has come to a sleepy New Mexico town on a mission. He wants to blackmail sadistic, nearly deaf gangster Hugo (Fred Clark), partly because he needs the money, but mostly to revenge his late friend Shorty. Shorty has been killed by Hugo, following his own attempt at extortion.

Gagin is neither a hero nor an anti-hero. He's a schmuck, just dumb enough to think he can get away with a quick swindle. But for a man intent on getting himself into trouble, he makes great friends fast: Pila (Wanda Hendrix), a seriously confused young Mexican woman, Pancho (Thomas Gomez), a gregarious carnival ride operator, and Retz (Art Smith), a federal agent also after Hugo. Gagin is like a toddler let loose in the streets. It takes the endless and combined efforts of his newfound friends to keep him alive.

The film is rife with memorable supporting performances. Gomez is terrific, but so is Fred Clark, a character actor often typecast as a dislikable, unethical businessman. As the gangster Hugo, he live a joyless, grasping life, associating with unpleasant party girl Marjorie (Andrea King) and faceless, unthinking goons. Hugo can easily afford to pay Gagin off, but he can't resist the satisfaction of setting him up for a fall instead.

Ride the Pink Horse has been called 'film noir', mostly because of the era in which it was made. However, it doesn't fit easily into the genre. The film has too many heroes. Andrea King is too brash and unseductive to be a femme fatale. Many of the lines are funny, but whether they are intended to be that way is a matter of interpretation. Even the title is curious, referring to the choice of ceramic horses at a merry-go-round.

Ride the Pink Horse was based on a book by Dorothy B. Hughes. Ben Hecht, nominated for six screenwriting Oscars during his career, is credited with the script along with Charles Lederer. It was remade as the 1964 made-for-television movie The Hanged Man. (77/100)