March 10, 2015
“He hadn’t wanted to come here. He’d wanted it less and less as the bus traveled further across the wasteland; miles of nothing, just land, empty land. Land that didn’t get anywhere except into more land, and always against the sky the unmoving barrier of mountains. It was like moving into a trap, a trap you couldn’t get out of. Because no matter how you tried, no matter how far you traveled, you’d always be stopped by the rigid mountains. He didn’t like it at all when they moved into this town, his destination. Because this was the center of the trap; it was a long way back to civilization in any direction. The thing to do was get out quick.” – Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy B. Hughes
Ride the Pink Horse is a grim procedural of hate. Published in 1946, it was Dorothy B. Hughes’ ninth novel, and second to be adapted into a film, following The Fallen Sparrow (1943). A cynical gunman named Sailor travels to a remote New Mexico town during their yearly “Fiesta”, a Southwestern Mardi Gras. He is tracking down his former mentor “The Sen”, a corrupt ex-Senator, for shakedown money. Sailor is a single-minded racist brute, circling the small town in ritualistic repetitions, until the map of the main square is in ingrained in your head (one of the early Dell paperback editions included a map on the back anyway). Sailor is an outsider, and no matter how often he treads the city’s streets, it continues to constrict slowly around him. Robert Montgomery’s 1947 movie adaptation for Universal-International alters many of the plot details, but captures the doomed fatalism of Hughes’ work. Typecast as a light romantic comedy lead, Montgomery took on greater risks as a director, starting with the POV experiments of Lady in the Lake (1947) and continuing through the elaborate crane shots orchestrated by DP Russell Metty in Ride the Pink Horse. It has been a certified cult film ever since Jean Cocteau programmed it at the Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz in 1949, but it has been hard to see until next week, March 17th, when the Criterion Collection releases it on DVD and Blu-ray.
But this was not the only adaptation of Ride the Pink Horse. In 1964 Don Siegel directed the telefilm The Hanged Man for NBC, after his adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers was pulled from broadcast, deemed too “spicy, expensive and violent for TV screens.” This time he got his project on the air — the second made-for-TV movie ever shown. The setting is relocated to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, emphasizing the choked streets and vibrant colors that Robert Culp and Edmond O’Brien wander through with clenched determination.
The 1947 Ride the Pink Horse would not have been made without the efforts of producer Joan Harrison. Harrison was an assistant and writer for Alfred Hitchcock from 1933 – 1942, but had been interested in the movie business long before. She earned degrees in philosophy, politics and economics at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, but wrote film reviews for the student newspaper. After parting ways with Hitchcock she became a producer for Robert Siodmak thrillers at Universal, collaborating with the talented German on Phantom Lady (1944) and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945). There was a detour to RKO to make the George Raft noir Nocturne (1946, I wrote about it here), she returned to Universal for Ride the Pink Horse. The crew assembled by Harrison and Montgomery for the feature was an incredible array of talent. The script was written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, already legends for Scarface and His Girl Friday. Hecht had just worked with Hitchcock on Spellbound and Notorious, so it’s very possible he was introduced to Harrison through Hitchcock.
Hecht and Lederer’s script compacts Hughes’ narrative, reducing the endless circling of the novel to a manageable few laps around town. They change Sailor’s name to “Lucky Gagin”, and give him a history as a WWII veteran. In the novel Sailor was a street kid raised by crooks. Montgomery was in the naval service during the war, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. For his first film back he gave a steely, dignified, and deeply moving performance in They Were Expendable, for which he had to direct a few scenes while John Ford broke his leg. The war still loomed large in his life and in the nation, so that becomes Gagin’s backstory – a disillusioned soldier disgusted by the decadence of the criminal/capitalist machine, while his friends-in-arms go down abroad and at home. Gagin is going after mob boss Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), who was involved in the death of a friend. Hugo is a smiling monster with a hearing aid and huge chompers and the voice of a radio announcer. He’s a smooth operator – a new breed of criminal. Gagin is done with all of it, so has decided to go in business for himself — to cut ties with humanity. Montgomery gives a very controlled, mannered performance to convey this. As in the novel, Gagin keeps his right hand implanted in his breast pocket, tightly gripping his gun. This inner coil also shows up in Montgomery’s jaw, jutted out as if he’s continually grinding his teeth. Everything in an attempt to get smaller, more invisible.
Gagin is introduced in a three-minute unbroken crane shot in which the world is displayed as nothing more than a tool for him to manipulate. It begins with him stepping off a bus into the station in San Pablo, in which he secures his gun, hides a canceled check, and uses a stick of gum as an adhesive for a secret key. He is a mechanical man. He becomes part of the machinery later on. While knocked unconscious, his newfound friends Pila (Wanda Hendrix) and Pancho (Thomas Gomez, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) hide him from Hugo’s thugs on the “Tio Vio” (an 1882 carousel imported from Taos). Gagin is covered by a blanket and spun around like an extension of the contraption’s pink horse. As it goes round and round, Hugo’s men start brutally beating Pancho at the controls. Metty mounts the camera on the carousel, setting at towards the children onboard, who keep staring back at the beating as it swings by. Then there is a cut to the hired muscle standing over Pancho, the shadow of the carousel flickering over theirs. Gagin has reduced himself all the way down, and his friends are paying the price.
In this town Gagin is the minority, his white face a giveaway that he doesn’t belong. One of the main motifs in the book is how the Fiesta brings together victims and the conquered in an uneasy truce, though the economic inequality is stark: the Whites frequent the upscale hotel and bar La Fonda, while the Spanish get drunk inside an adobe dive called the Tres Violetas and the Native Americans sit outside selling trinkets. Gagin is one of the few who can traverse all of these spaces. He befriends the operator of the “Tio Vivo” carousel Pancho , as well as a young Native girl who latches on to him, Pila. It is only around them that Gagin unclenches, his posture sags, and looks like a normal human being. They are outside his sphere of betrayal.
Pancho and Pila are both reductive racial “types” give life with muti layered performances. Pancho is the gregarious Mexican drunkard gifted with Gomez’s overflowingly warm, and, to quote Michael Almereyda’s booklet essay, “Falstaffian” performance. His character has no need for material things, just a tarp over his head and a bottle of tequila. To Gagin this looks like freedom. Pila is the “unknowable” and “exotic” Native American who stares at Gagin (and Sailor) with off-putting intensity. But Wanda Hendrix plays Pila as not just a mystic, but also a young, preternaturally self-assured girl. She has the penetrating eyes of Renee Falconetti and the dogged curiosity of Nancy Drew. For the last third of the feature Gagin is near unconscious, and Pila has to drag him from bar to bar evading Hugo’s goons. But the final revelation is that she is still a child. As Gagin disappears over the horizon, the camera returns to Pila, reveling in the glory of being the center of attention. She is retelling the story of Ride the Pink Horse to a circle of her former bullies. It is her story now.
Pila plays a much smaller part in Don Siegel’s 1964 telefilm, a fascinating companion piece to Hughes’ book and Montgomery’s feature. It hews closer to the Montgomery/Hecht/Lederer version, with nods to Hugo’s hearing aid and the bravura bus station long take. An addled ticket taker has a hearing aid attached to his glasses so he “can’t hear without my glasses”. Once the Sailor character, here named “Harry Pace” (Robert Culp) gets to New Orleans to enact his revenge, he hides his canceled check inside of a Christian Science Reading room. Without the resources of even Montgomery’s modest production, Siegel still manages some effective shots, saved almost entirely for the final sequence at the Mardi Gras parade. He gets some kinetic handheld work pushing through the crowds as Pace tries to outrun his fate. While the Hughes novel and 1947 film are both very interiorized, the imagery filtered through Sailor/Gagin’s warped psyche, here there is no time for more elaborate visual planning. Instead it’s objective, straightforward pulp propulsion. Pila and Pancho pick him up hitchhiking and offer Pace a helping hand, but they aren’t the transformational forces as they are in the previous versions. Instead, it’s just another bit of revenge clumsily executed. For as focused as Sailor/Gagin/Pace is, he’s a bit of a dolt. And “the trap you couldn’t get out of” is the one inside his head.