director Robert Montgomery
Ride the Pink Horse is an unusual name for a film noir. Despite the fact that I’ve recently read the Dorothy B. Hughes novel from which it was adapted, its oddity still stands out, even knowing contextually from whence it comes.
Hughes’s novel is set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during a fiesta in the small town that has drawn locals from all over the state for the festivities, still somewhat pagan in their origin. Director/star Robert Montgomery and screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer change the setting vaguely to San Pablo, a stand-in for Santa Fe, even though some shots seem to indicate that Santa Fe also stands in for itself.
As an adaptation, it’s quite deft, tightening up some parts of the story, softening others, developing some of its own designs and ideas. Though Hughes’s novel was published in 1946, Montgomery and crew shift this noir into more specific post-war haze. Montgomery’s character is no longer a thug turned blackmailer but a veteran turned blackmailer. And his pursuant lawman, no longer a local Chicago cop, but a federal agent straight out of D.C.
A couple of the best things about the film are some character actors: Wanda Hendrix as Indian waif Pila, Thomas Gomez as immensely affable Pancho the owner of the litte carousel, and Fred Clark as the big villain with a hearing aid. All three are excellent in their own ways (Gomez even became the first Latino-American actor nominated for an Oscar for his role). Hendrix may not look the least Indian or Latina herself, but she’s very beautiful, and young and small, really embodying the spirit of the character.
I liked this much better than Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947). Hughes is an excellent crime novelist of her era. She also wrote the amazing In a Lonely Place, which was also turned into a a classic film noir. I was surprised to see this was a Criterion production, but glad to see it gets recognition.