Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

ride-the-pink-horse-1Films Noir often find their hooks in lurid titles but also in metaphor. Ride the Pink Horse fits into the latter category as pulled from the pages of Dorothy B Hughes and adapted by Ben Hecht & Charles Lederer. The horse can be taken in the literal sense as one of the wooden animals that go round and round on the local carousel but there’s some symbolism in this opulent creature. In some distant way, it’s the fantasy of a different life that every man seems to crave when he doesn’t have it. But still, he strives and grinds to get closer and closer to it. More often than not he does not succeed in finding so-called contentment.

Whether you get that sense from actually watching Ride the Pink Horse is up for debate, but it’s a film that deserves more limelight for its numerous assets. Robert Montgomery is not necessarily the most agreeable lead at first as Lucky Gagin, a war vet who travels to the New Mexico tourist trap of San Pablo to end some unfinished business for a friend.

But the camera gives the sense of constantly tailing Montgomery as he makes his way through the surprisingly atmospheric streets of New Mexico. The on-location shooting is a credit to the film, in particular, the work inside La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe that gives a certain Spanish sensibility to the film through its very architecture. It has the type of color that you expect to find in a place like Rick’s Cafe or The Mos Eisley Cantina.

ride-the-pink-horse-2And it’s from these opening moments that we try to get a line on Gagin by watching his every move and word. He’s brusque and abrasive with almost crazed features — constantly suspicious, demanding, and sour. He had a little too much cyanide for breakfast (although he does like fruit cocktail). Just as we watch him with interest, his probing eyes case every joint and every person he comes in contact with. Because, if it’s not obvious already, he’s not come to San Pablo for R & R. He’s come to town to avenge his dead army buddy, who was double-crossed and put out of a commission by a very big man (Fred Clark).

Gagin’s looking to get Shorty’s due: $15,000. But he hasn’t thought it out a whole lot; he doesn’t quite understand what he’s up against as is often the case with rough and tumble noir heroes. It can be their undoing. Uncle Sam (Art Smith) is in one sense grandfatherly but there’s also a sly sparkle in his eyes that leads to some question to his motives. Does he really have Gagin’s well-being in mind or is there something sinister going on here? It’s too early to tell.

However, in a dive bar, Gagin meets the jovial local Pancho (Thomas Gomez in a particularly spirited performance) who quickly befriends the out of towner over drinks and simultaneously makes the audience like Gagin a little more by simple transference. We like Pancho right off and if Pancho likes this character then we might as well give him a chance. He makes him into an actual human being and that’s what he’s searching for too. Because, in truth, Gagin is wary of anyone and everyone. The people who are out to get him. The “dames” you touch only to get stung in return.

ride-the-pink-horse-3Just as there is a cultured femme fatale (Andrea King), her counterpoint is the tentative Pila (played sympathetically but rather unfortunately by Wanda Hendrix), who floats in to watch over Gagin even when he doesn’t want her around. She stays anyways.

A merry go round was utilized by Hitchcock a few years later in Strangers on a Train but in a different way. He used the frenetic energy to his advantage. In Ride the Pink Horse it’s the blatant juxtaposition that is telling. Something so pleasant and joyous as a merry go around takes a whole new meaning in the presence of violence.

A grand fiesta makes its way through town that culminates in the traditional burning of the effigy of Sasobra, The God of Bad Luck.  A dozen years later Sam Fuller would use a similarly lively cultural celebration as the climatic backdrop for The Crimson Kimono.

However, what stands out about Ride the Pink Horse is the idiosyncratic roads it traverses. It’s difficult to put a finger on it exactly, as it has glimpses of other films but there’s also nothing quite like it. The way the story progresses, what the characters find time to talk about, even the title, it’s all fascinating for its very uniqueness.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Phantom Lady (1944)

phantom-lady-1Robert Siodmak might not be the foremost of lauded directors, but it’s indisputable that film noir as a genre, a movement, a style, whatever you want to call it, would be a lot less interesting without him.

Phantom Lady is a perfect illustration of that fact as it takes a simple plotting device and rides it through the entire story to a fitting conclusion. It’s not a taut thriller or really anything of the kind but the characters and even the cinematic choices make it a surprisingly shadowy delight.

As the title suggests, any explanation of the narrative must begin and end with this phantom lady who, if you want to use storytelling terms, is the MacGuffin, the entity driving the plot forward to its final end. She’s necessary but as we might predict she’s at the same time integral to the story and not at all important.

Because the fact that she is missing is simply a pretense that leads to a response from our hero. And at first, our hero seems pretty obvious, the handsome down on his luck Joe with a pencil mustache (Alan Curtis). Once upon a time, I confused him with another noir regular Brian Dunlevy but no more. Anyways, our actual hero comes to the fore after the inciting incident. This man Scott Henderson all of a sudden comes back from a crummy night at the theater to find himself accused of strangling his wife. The cops seem to have a guilty until proven innocent modus operandi. True, the eyewitnesses for his alibi seem knee deep and yet everyone has hushed up, including a bartender, a jazz drummer, a flamboyant performer. Worst of all his female companion for the evening has vanished into thin air.

With no alibi, Scott still sticks to his ridiculous story that no one believes and he winds up sentenced for the murder of his wife. If you’re still following, it’s at this juncture where the story really begins. Henderson’s plucky secretary “Kansas” (Ella Raines) is smitten with her boss and determined to prove his innocence. So she becomes our intrepid noir hero digging around in the sleazy bars and dance halls, tracking down possible leads. A tight-lipped bartender is subjected to her merciless tailing and she even ingratiates herself to a swinging jazz drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) who can really make his sticks fly.

They get her closer to the trail but each one becomes a successive dead end. She gains some encouraging allies in the initially skeptical detective Burgess (Thomas Gomez) as well as Scott’s best friend who has just returned from a trip to South America (Franchot Tone). Together they try and wrap up the loose ends. Of course, as an audience, the dramatic irony sets up the tension as we know what’s going on behind the scenes. So this is still partially a mystery as the search for the phantom lady continues but the joke’s really on us because soon enough we know what’s happening. However, whether it’s too late for our heroes is quite another question altogether.

Siodmak does well to develop a stylized atmosphere and there are some especially intriguing touches. The foremost is how many sequences, including the tailing sequence, function without music and yet jazz is utilized in a frenzied interlude that is almost unheard of in noir for its sheer vivacity. It’s oddly disconcerting, the juxtaposition suggesting this utter contrast between personified joy and the darkness that is seeping into the story. After all, a man is about to be sentenced to death. Jazz certainly does not fit the mood.

There’s also the paradigm of the noir working girl played perhaps most iconically by the audacious Ella Raines. In many ways, this is her film and she’s as good and almost better than many a gumshoe and insurance investigators. It’s a role that Raines embodies with great resolve and a certain amount of drive that we can appreciate in a female character of that day and age. She’s far from an objectified figure because she has brains and desires of our own — even if they are all for the well-being of a man.

It also should be noted that this was the first production credit for pioneering British screenwriter Joan Harrison. She was only one of only three woman producers in Hollywood at the time and this is a film that she could certainly be proud of with an impressive noir heroine.

3.5/5 Stars

Force of Evil (1948)

Forceofevil

This is Wall Street… and today was important because tomorrow – July Fourth – I intended to make my first million dollars. An exciting day in any man’s life. Temporarily, the enterprise was slightly illegal. You see I was the lawyer for the numbers racket”  ~ Joe Morse

Not in recent memory has a film left such a different taste in my mouth. Force of Evil has all the trappings of a thoroughly engrossing noir crime film. There’s the crooked lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield), looking to get ahead by helping a top level gangster named Tucker take over the numbers racket in New York. There’s his estranged older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) wanting nothing to do with his brother’s dirty money. It’s a classic Cain and Able type conflict. Add realistic location shooting inter-cut with voice-over, and a David Raksin score to make a real winner.

Yet Force of Evil is a dangerous film to take at face value because on that level alone it is highly entertaining. However, director and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky created something special here at only 78 minutes in length. His film has a certain rhythm that is hard to pinpoint. John Garfield especially delivers his lines impeccably, drifting in and out of common everyday jargon and moral convictions. It’s a slightly higher level of dialogue that deserves more digestion and thought. He even gives a taxi cab soliloquy that gives On the Waterfront a run for its money.

As a big picture, the plot makes sense for the most part. Joe is on the verge of making millions on the Fourth of July, and he wants to cut his brother in on it. But his brother works one of the smaller rackets which is bound to be pushed out. He has his own sense of morality, where he can bear what he does but not what Joe will hand him.

Leo reluctantly agrees to join the big operation out of necessity until things get way too involved, and this time Joe is in a place where he has to get out himself, with no way of protecting his brother. His resolve to watch over his brother is to no avail when the Ficco Gang tries to push their way into the racket. Meanwhile, Joe still finds time to flirt with the innocent and proper Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson), the former secretary of Leo, who is in complete juxtaposition with Mrs. Tucker (Marie Windsor), who Morse keeps company with initially.

However, this whole mess is constantly being complicated. There is “Freddie” Bauer (Howland Chamberlain), the nervous fellow who used to work with Leo and now, with the big takeover, is looking to blow the whistle on whoever he can to stay out of the fray. There’s the police who seem intent on getting their hands on everybody they can and not showing favoritism towards anyone. There’s Leo who is righteously indignant while also taking his brother’s offer of a better position begrudgingly. There’s Doris who is in all ways sensible and yet still falls for Joe, not in your typical passionate way, but it still happens nonetheless. There’s the line between legitimate business and criminal activity that is constantly be zig-zagged.

Finally, there is Joe who deserves the greatest amount of scrutiny. John Garfield apparently could not pinpoint his character’s deal initially either, but he must have figured it out because he nailed it. It’s probably his greatest performance. He’s the kind of guy who blows the whistle on his own brother in order to help him in his own way. It doesn’t quite make sense, and he seems so often blinded, but he keeps pushing forward in a vain attempt towards success. All the caustic words and aggressive come-ons don’t work. Ultimately, he has to come to reality. When Joe does, that’s when he realizes what he has started and what he has done to Leo. By that point, it’s nearly too late for him, and it’s most definitely too late for Leo.

4/5 Stars

Phantom Lady (1944)

PhantomladyThe film uses the motif of a mysterious lady who cannot be found as the jumping off point for this Film-Noir. It is this so called phantom lady who Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) meets at a bar after having a spat with his wife. They lift each others spirits and part ways. Returning home, he is met by the police inspector (Thomas Gomez), who found that Henderson’s wife was strangled to death. Scott is the prime suspect and now he needs his alibi which seemed so airtight before.

She truly has vanished and no one remembers her so Henderson is on the verge of the death penalty. It is his smitten secretary Carol (Ella Raines) who takes up his cause. She retraces his steps interrogating a bartender and wheedling information out of a puny drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.). Soon an old friend (Franchot Tone) of Scott’s returns from South America and everything gets a little more interesting.

Phantom Lady stars a cast of only a couple recognizable names, however Robert Siodmak does a decent job at making this noir interesting and it is certainly worth a watch.

3.5/5 Stars