The Secret Star: Ride the Pink Horse (1947), Part II A Classic, Postwar Film Noir
Ride the Pink Horse is based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ popular, eponymous 1946 novel, about a bitter, cynical combat veteran of the Pacific Theater of Operations, “Lucky” Gagin (Robert Montgomery). Gagin is looking to score at the expense of gangster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), who had killed his friend, Shorty. Gagin has gotten nowhere since leaving the service. “I’m nobody's friend. The man with no place.” He wants to blackmail Hugo for $30,000, but he’s just going to get himself killed. Gagin’s a dead man walking, unless … he can make some friends in a hurry, in spite of himself.
When Lucky Gagin gets off the bus in San Pablo, New Mexico, he tries finding a certain hotel (where Hugo is staying), but he can’t even find it. The locals either have no idea where it is, or don’t know any English.
Along the way, a cute but scruffy little Mexican girl sees him, and immediately adopts him, like a stray dog who likes the way you smell. (I’ve been adopted by four dogs and one cat over the years, though none was a stray: Lana, Blackie Boy, Bobby, Jingles and Oreo.)
He tells her to scat, and she seems to go, only to constantly re-appear.
Her name is Pila, and she is visiting with some girlfriends from an even smaller, more backward village about 30 miles away. The girlfriends are looking for boys but Pila doesn’t know how to do that.
Only hours later does Pila tell Gagin that she’d had a vision the moment she laid eyes on him. He was white as a ghost, lying on the ground, dead. She gives him a pocket-sized doll of a being who is to protect him against the Evil Spirit.
Some village girls like Pila see things, and cannot distinguish between dreams, visions, and reality. In Trinidad, they say girls like that were “born in a veil.”
Pila never makes any protestations of love, but she is completely devoted to Gagin, and is ready to kill and/or die to keep him alive. That’s good for him, because Hugo and his assassins are constantly trying to kill “Lucky,” who is anything but.
Although Montgomery’s makeup and hair people make Wanda Hendrix look initially scruffy, they can’t hide her beautiful eyes. Although their green doesn’t show up in a black-and-white picture, they’re still stunning—cat eyes.
When Gagin gives Pila ten dollars (a fortune to her), and tells her to go to a beauty parlor and get cleaned up, she comes back looking stunning in every way.
Although Pila is initially in awe of Frank Hugo’s moll, Marjorie, as beautiful and sophisticated, she is actually her superior in every way, including looks and figure. Gagin on Marjorie: “She has a dead fish where her heart ought to be.”
There’s a fascinating aspect to the way the screenwriters (Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer), makeup and hair people (Bud Westmore and Carmen Dirigo, respectively), cinematographer Russell Metty, and Montgomery and Hendrix depict Pila. When we first encounter her, she looks and acts like she’s about 12 years old. But every time she pops up again over the next 30 hours, she looks to be a few years older and wiser. (Hendrix was actually only 18.) The helpless-looking girl is actually very resourceful, and constantly saves Gagin’s life.
I’m sure Hecht and Lederer got the idea from Robert Nathan’s 1940 fantasy romance novel, Portrait of Jennie. When frustrated, failed young artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten, in the 1948 picture) takes a walk through Central Park on a beautiful, spring day, a radiant little ten-year-old named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) appears out of, and disappears back to nowhere. But for a little while, as they walk and talk, this beautiful, charming little girl adopts the grown man and changes his life, inspiring him to paint her portrait suffused with the love that had earlier eluded him.
Every time Adams sees Jenny, she’s older and taller, and more beautiful. She models for him, and they fall madly in love.
Adams has another guardian angel, the old spinster art gallery owner, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), who was the first to buy a painting from Adams, out of pity and the hope it would jump-start his career. Miss Spinney is also not so secretly in love with Adams.
The problem is, nobody but Adams can see Jenny. Miss Spinney starts to doubt his sanity.
Thus did one of the great fantasies of the time greatly influence one of the great hard-edged films noir.
There was talk of Hendrix getting an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but nothing came of it. However, Thomas Gomez was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
The creative team had at least three options, as to how to end the story—a happy ending, with Gagan sweeping Pila off her feet, a bittersweet ending, or one in which Gagan gets killed. I won’t give it away, except to say that the ending is poignant.
Robert Montgomery led a very interesting life. He knew wealth and poverty. Unlike some of the characters he played, however, he actually did make a fortune.
Montgomery was a huge star from 1930-1941, but after playing a boxer who gets accidentally killed, due to a screw-up in heaven’s bureaucracy, in Calling Mr. Jordan (1941), which got him his second Best Actor Oscar nomination, he enlisted in the Navy, where he heroically served as a PT boat skipper, and separated from the service a lieutenant commander.
By the time Montgomery returned to Hollywood to star in John Ford’s They were Expendable (1945), he was 41, paunchy, and haggard. Other men, younger men, had dodged the draft, and built great careers while he was gone. He lost some of the weight, and got into directing. Montgomery never showed any bitterness, and in 1950 switched to the new medium of television, where from 1950-1957 he produced and hosted 320 episodes of the theatrical anthology show, Robert Montgomery Presents. In 1950, Montgomery reprised his role as Lucky Gagin on his TV show.
TCM’s Red Eddie Muller asserted that Montgomery should not have directed Pink Horse, because he gave “less than his best” both as director and star. Nonsense. Montgomery was excellent in both roles. This is not a matter of differing opinions. Rather, Muller was getting even at Montgomery for being a patriot.
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.