A shifty looking man in a cheap looking hat and an even cheaper looking suit walks into the bus station of a small New Mexico town. He sits down, opens his only suitcase and “discreetly” takes out a gun which he slides into his breast-pocket. He then takes out a small piece of paper, stands up, walks to a station locker and deposits the slip inside. He holds the locker key in his fingers for a second, wondering what to do with it, before spying a nearby chewing gum vending machine. He pulls out a coin, puts it in the machine and takes the gum, chewing on a stick as he walks over to a map of the town hanging on a wall. Placing the key against his mouth he presses the gum onto it allowing him to then surreptitiously fix the key onto the back of the map. His item now hidden from view he walks out the station and into the dusty street.
It asks us to pay attention to quite a lot, but did you notice it was all done in one take? And are we meant to be aware we’re “observing” him so intently?
But who is this guy and what does he want? He’s Lucky Gagin (Robert Montgomery, who also directed the movie), an army vet that’s come down to San Pablo to confront a certain Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), a mob boss Gagin is convinced is responsible for the death of his ex-service buddy, Shorty. And the slip of paper in the locker? It’s a cancelled check that can incriminate Hugo to the FBI, so is this justice Gagin is after or blackmail?
We quickly suspect the latter because Gagin is not a nice guy: he’s offensive, racist, sexist, patronising, utterly devoid of charm and a thug. He’s also not the smartest brain on two legs so it could be that the young local girl, Pila (Wanda Hendrix), is concerned for his safety less through any form of supernatural foresight or affection but more that it’s blindingly obvious his stupidity’s going to get himself, and others, killed.
Yet stupidity, or at least our perceptions and projections of it, is very much a focus of this movie. Pila, when we first meet her, is so ridiculously innocent she comes across as profoundly simple-minded, a total dolt (the scene where Gagin takes her to a fancy restaurant is hilarious), yet by the time the film ends… well, let’s just say we’re no longer thinking that about her.
Gagin’s blockheadedness also serves a function. Sure, he’s an unsophisticated lunk of a grunt who might offend our “refined sensibilities” but when it becomes apparent his archaic masculinity is being demolished by a system he can’t comprehend, let alone exploit, our sense of sympathy is slightly stirred; Gagin might possess the physical abilities to survive in the chaos of conflict but placed in the cutthroat world of American Capitalism he’s as vulnerable as a baby.
But that’s okay, son, because good old Uncle Sam’s got your back. Sure, you might not know how the system works but you know when to do the right thing, don’t you son? Or are we just being set-up as another chump by our own country here?
So it’s the characters, themes and dialogue more than the plot that really blasts off the screen, something that’s not surprising considering it’s written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer and based on the novel by Joan “In a Lonely Place” Harrison, and the strength of the writing is best exemplified by the character of Pancho (Thomas Gomez) who, as first, seems nothing more than a walk-on character somewhat outstaying his welcome only to ultimately become the very heart of the movie.
‘Ride the Pink Horse’ is less about Gagin getting his money and more about the new forms of annihilating structures of power he encounters in his attempt (did John Boorman see this before making ‘Point Blank’?). It’s about the impact of American Foreign policy on the “other”, returning servicemen dislocated from their own society on returning home, the limitations of masculinity, the corruption inherent in domestic politics and the overwhelming destructive might of wealth.
It’s a genuinely outstanding piece of work.