Director Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse is what Quentin Tarantino might dub a “hang-out movie,” as it’s primarily concerned with its characters’ interactions, not only with one another, but within their surrounding spaces. In the opening, the story’s hero, a stranger who occasionally answers to the name Gagin (Montgomery), steps off a bus in a terminal in San Pablo, New Mexico. It’s immediately obvious that Gagin’s looking for trouble, as indicated by his beat-up gray pinstriped suit and hat, which are occupied by a body that’s postured stiffly in a manner that connotes unmistakably cornered rage and bitterness—a look that noir fans will recognize as gangster or man-on-the-lam 101. Gagin moves with fascinating purpose, ever forward, and Montgomery and cinematographer Russell Metty allow us to savor the details of this stranger as he takes a moment to acquiesce to his new setting.
The subsequent terminal sequence is filmed in a remarkably long and modern single take, the first of many in the film, which derives suspense precisely from the filmmakers’ refusal to grant one the ineffable relief of a cut. Montgomery exploits this sense of anxious expectation for nearly comic effect. Gagin looks around in the terminal, proceeding toward the rear of the small rectangular building. He sits down, opening his suitcase, producing from it a gun, which he tucks into his jacket, and a bank check, which he holds with pronounced deliberation. Gagin looks around again, renting a locker, sticking the check inside, and buying a pack of chewing gum, which he unwraps, pulling off a stick that he begins to chew. He looks around some more, surveying a large map of San Pablo that he’s already noticed earlier. Eventually, he uses the gum to stick the key behind the map, and walks unceremoniously out, asking a local how he can find the La Fonda Hotel.
The film is rich in such deceptively leisurely scenes, which offer beautiful imagery that revels less in plot than in the immediate sensory experience of life. The terminal isn’t taken for granted as a background set, and neither is the remainder of this stylized vision of San Pablo, which is used as an evocative symbol for Gagin’s alienation from society. Orson Welles fans might recognize Metty as the cinematographer of The Stranger and Touch of Evil, and it seems that Montgomery was empowered by Metty’s work on the former to stage sequences that reveal information through unbroken shots that emphasize a setting’s geography. There’s something weirdly exhilarating in watching a character move from the foreground of a frame to the background in one shot, as it imparts a sense of uninterrupted being-ness that elaborates on the interlocking relationship between self and community. Allowing Gagin, a white man, to move through a group of local Mexicans and Native Americans without ellipses places the audience in the position of feeling his discomfort, while providing tactile physical texture that’s intensified by the masterful use of deep-focus photography.
Ride the Pink Horse finds Montgomery refining the techniques that he incorporated into his directorial debut, the boldly experimental Lady in the Lake, which told a Philip Marlowe story through intensely limiting first-person framing. Here, Montgomery also plays with subjective staging, but in a fashion that draws the audience in rather than pushing us out. Gagin’s often pointedly positioned so that his back is to the audience, encouraging us to accept him as our avatar in a fashion that’s less obtrusively exclusionary than the prior film’s insistence that we see everything through the hero’s eyes. Gagin isn’t literally the camera as Marlowe was, but a less ostentatiously absent sketch of a man who serves as our entry point for accessing a gallery of livelier characters and backdrops. In both films, the protagonists are phantoms, apart from societies that might function better without them, and Montgomery’s willingness as a director to efface himself as an actor offers testament to his formal ambition as an artist.
Montgomery’s performance as Gagin is in sync with his direction; he’s memorably curt and brittle, likable in spite of himself in the tradition of any antihero who’s worth a damn. The actor’s lack of vanity is particularly notable in a strikingly hallucinatory sequence near the end of the film, in which Gagin grows delirious from a serious knife injury and becomes convinced that he’s started his quest all over again from the beginning. The weakness the character displays, not to mention the vulnerability (he’s saved, in a very Hawksian flourish of heroic democracy, by a teenage girl), scan as almost avant-garde in the context of an American crime drama. This circular sequence also vividly literalizes the film’s governing theme, traditional of post-war noirs, of a lost man in search of solid ground on which to initiate a new life so far defined by ingratitude, hypocrisy, self-pity, and uncertainty. All of which leave him feeling forever trapped on metaphorical page one.
The image is almost painterly in its richness and clarity. A bit of natural grain persists, but it only adds verisimilitude to a film preoccupied with the contrasting visual textures of lives lived on the streets and in the country, respectively. Blacks are deep, and subtly varied, while whites are clean and vibrant. Scratches and other flaws have been cleaned up with a sense of delicacy that’s traditional to the Criterion Company. The English monaural track, which includes quite a bit of daringly un-subtitled Spanish (another of the film’s modern, immersive touches), is exceptionally well-mixed, favoring multiple planes that serve as a complementary aural equivalent to the film’s gorgeous deep-focus imagery.
The audio commentary by film-noir scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini is dry, but full of interesting information, including details on Robert Montgomery, producer Joan Harrison, and the many changes the filmmakers made to the source novel by the underrated crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes (who also wrote In a Lonely Place, which served as the source material for the iconic Nicholas Ray film). Engagingly off the beaten path is the "In Lonely Places" featurette with Imogen Sara Smith, who discusses noir in terms of whether it’s set in or outside of a large city, contextualizing Ride the Pink Horse as one of the many "outside" examples of this not-quite genre. Meanwhile, the poignant essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda memorably suggests that Wanda Hendrix’s character paved the way for the disillusioned female innocents of Terrence Malick’s early films, Badlands and Days of Heaven. Rounding out the package is a radio adaptation of the film that features several of the original cast members.
A gorgeous restoration of a formally adventurous and unjustly overlooked noir by an almost equally overlooked acting-filmmaking hyphenate. Let the rediscovery and reappraisal begin.