***** out of 5
"Hey, you drink pretty good for a gringo!"
Joan Harrison, producer, made her start working under Hitchcock as script reader, eventually growing into a more collaborative role, writing on several of his films, before finally stepping out on her own. Ride the Pink Horse represents one of her earliest successes independent of the shadow of Hitch.
Her collaborator here is the auteur-minded actor/director Robert Montgomery, who came to this film fresh off the more well-know noir experiment, "Lady in the Water." You know- the one where the audience experiences the story like a first-person video game, the first time an entire film had been shot from that perspective,
Add to these two hungry, maverick-minded movie masters the name of writer Ben Hecht. Like Harrison, Hecht worked quite a bit with Hitchcock, and that may be considered lesser efforts in the prolific list of films to which he is attributed credit. Charles Lederer, another fine writer, co-wrote the script with Hecht.
Individually and collectively, these four creative individuals have an impressive collection of credit on the all-time list of great cinema.
The result of their collaboration? Stunningly good noir, with a setting and plot that sets it apart from the rest of noir canon. Unflinching darkness, combined with the definition of humor Hitchcock so frequently tried to explain to interviewers, and clearly shared with Harrison and Hecht- not of the humor of comedy, but a way of looking at life and death that makes a story engaging and real.
Mongomery, as in his previous noir effort, takes the lead as Gagin, an unforgettable variation on the Homecoming WWII Veteran character type. He spends most of the film as a cold, sullen man, isolated from humanity, tracking down the killer of the one friend he had that connected him to the land of the living. One gets the sense that he has withdrawn as a result of his wartime experiences, burying his humanity deep behind the stony facade of a heartless thug.
How that humanity is rediscovered through the course of the film, is one of the most remarkable aspects of the film. More simplistic films would have him "transformed by the love of a woman," but this goes deeper and richer.
First, there are the subtle ways he is opened up. Seeing the character suddenly laugh for the first time during his initial encounter with Thomas Gomez' character, is a subtle moment of acting greatness- the sense that he has nearly forgotten how to laugh is evident, and it is in many ways a turning point for his character, and part of what makes him compelling, relatable, and someone the audience is willing to root for.
Secondly, yes, there is a girl. But this is no Hollywood romance, or even, really a romance at all. It's a more basic, essential human connection. Wanda Hendrix is astonishingly good in her role as Gagin's waifish guardian angel, a young girl who sees death in the eyes of this steely stranger and unquestioningly determines to prevent it, giving him her tribal good-luck charm, and wordlessly shadowing his path to see he does not come to harm.
Both of these characters, Thomas Gomez and Wanda Hendrix, represent the humanity with which Gagin has lost touch. The brutality they subject themselves to for his sake is often raw and shocking, and perhaps only because it is so, we readily believe the transformation in his character. Gomez was nominated for an oscar for his role, and there was oscar chatter for Hendrix, too, and with good reason in both cases. Superficially, they may be seen as stereotypes, but their deep humanity and richness of character makes them stand out in their parts.
The third character on the side of the angels is Art Smith's amusingly easy-going but determined retirement-aged government agent, Mr. Retz. Like Gagin, he is out to get the real villains, but his character plays less like the typically dogged investigator types in noir, and more like a surrogate father figure to the literally and symbolically wandering Gagin.
On the other side of the battle for Gagin's humanity is Andrea King, the Femme Fatale who works for Fred Clark's hearing-impaired mob boss character, but tries to make a deal with Gagin to get a cut of the blackmail he is demanding of Clark. The outcome of that attempted deal is the point at which things begin to go downhill for our anti-hero, and at which he goes from hunting to being hunted, and the moment when he begins to find the need for friends to lean on.
Watch for a repeated image of Gagin getting off a bus. The first instance is near the beginning of the film. the second is late in the picture, but it illuminates the earlier symbolically. As he staggers off the second time, with a knife wound in his back, the echoes of the earlier scene seem to say that he was dead the minute he first stepped off the bus and entered the town. Ironically, he is more alive the second time, despite the wound and loss of blood. He has found his heart again.