Blu-ray Review: Ride the Pink Horse - The Criterion Collection

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A Western noir directed by and starring Robert Montgomery, Ride the Pink Horse (1947) is an intriguingly dry portrait of post-war alienation. Montgomery plays Lucky Gagin, a disenfranchised vet who journeys to San Pablo, New Mexico with the goal of extorting money from the crime figure who killed his best friend. That man is none other than Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), a crook wanted by the FBI. In fact, a Fed by the name of Retz (Art Smith) attempts to convince Gagin he should hand over any dirt on Hugo to directly to him. The sleepily-paced drama forces viewers to adapt to its unusual rhythm, but the supplements found on the new Criterion Collection edition help emphasize the film’s importance to the noir genre.

Ride the Pink Horse 1 (380x324).jpgAs Gagin figures out how to handle his peculiar situation—whether or not he can trust Hugo to pay him for the damning evidence he hold, and whether he can trust G-man Retz, should he hand over said evidence—a pair of side characters rack up many of the best moments. Pila (Wanda Hendrix) is a Native American girl who takes a perplexing shine to Gagin. Though looked down upon by many, Gagin regards Pila with an off-handed respect. Their fancy restaurant outing is expertly played by Montgomery and Hendrix (who, being a Caucasian actress, is admittedly improbably cast). Also palling around with Gagin is Pancho (Thomas Gomez), a boisterous, barrel-chested man who runs the carousel that features the titular “pink horse” (not that we would know without being told, given the black-and-white cinematography).

Ride the Pink Horse is in the history books for more than simply being an intriguing film centered on Montgomery’s portrayal of the combat-haunted Gagin. Thomas Gomez made such an indelible impression as Gagin’s friendly sidekick Pancho, he became the first Hispanic actor to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Though he lost the award to Edmund Gwenn’s crowd-pleasing turn as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, Gomez paved the way for another Hispanic actor, José Ferrer (who was nominated the year after Gomez; Ferrer eventually won for the 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac). While the casting of Wanda Hendrix as a Native American showed how far Hollywood still had to go in terms of respecting ethnicity, director Montgomery gave Thomas Gomez a whopper of a role to sink his chops into.

Ride the Pink Horse 2 (380x313).jpgRide the Pink Horse arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion Collection as an outstanding transfer. As outlined in the booklet, this newly-created, 2K resolution transfer is a composite of two sources: a 35mm nitrate fine-grain print and a safety duplicate negative. Cinematographer Russell Metty shot Pink Horse quite a few years before his Oscar-winning work on Spartacus. His stark, almost drab lensing here looks remarkably fresh and clean. As for the audio, Criterion offers a straightforward LPCM 1.0 mono track that presents all elements in the best fidelity possible.

The best of Criterion’s supplements is the audio commentary featuring film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini. Even among the many lessons in film history delivered via Criterion commentary tracks, this is a particular standout. Perhaps it’s because I had such difficulty warming up to the oddly distanced tone of the film, but Silver and Ursini really do a great deal to put the film in context with other noirs. The other new piece, “In Lonely Places,” is a 20-minute interview with author Imogen Sara Smith. An hour-long 1947 Lux Theatre radio adaptation of the film, boasting the primary actors reprising their roles, is also included as an audio-only bonus.

Ride the Pink Horse 3 (380x309).jpgThe supplements, combined with the lengthy booklet essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, go a long way towards making Ride the Pink Horse a reasonably involving film. It might be a tough one to warm up to, largely due to Montgomery’s intentionally chilly characterization of Gagin, but students of film noir history will certainly thank The Criterion Collection for investing the time this release.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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