Ride the Pink Horse (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – It wouldn’t be fair to call this film unknown—ask any die-hard film noir fan—but outside of classic movie buffs and noir aficionados, Ride the Pink Horse (1947) simply isn’t a familiar title. The film’s debut on DVD and Blu-ray should help change things, and the Criterion imprint certainly doesn’t hurt.
Based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, whose work also inspired In A Lonely Place, and directed by Robert Montgomery, this is rural noir, set in a fictional New Mexico border town created almost entirely on studio sets (with a few location shots in Santa Fe). Montgomery also stars as “Lucky” Gagin, a big-city thug who tracks a crime boss (Fred Clark) to San Pablo for a shakedown on the eve of its fiesta season. The shift from the city at night to a dusty southwestern town, where Spanish fills the streets and cantinas outside of the tourist hotel, gives this film a striking atmosphere and texture, but the themes come right out of the post-war dramas and crime movies. Montgomery is a working class thug who came home from the war disillusioned and angry and Clark, his blackmail target, is a war profiteer who hides behind the façade of big business and looks more like a middle-management functionary than a criminal tough guy. (You might recalls Clark as the producer who dismisses William Holden’s baseball script in Sunset Blvd and as dyspeptic comic relief in scores of films and TV shows.) Ride the Pink Horse anticipates the connection between organized crime and corporate America that became even more prevalent in the 1950.
Gagin is streetwise but unimaginative and he’s way of his depths trying to strong-arm a mobster hiding behind a veneer of legitimacy, but he has guardian angels looking out for him: a paternal federal agent after the bog boss (Art Smith), the affable owner of a rickety carousel (Thomas Gomez), and especially a naïve but courageous teenage Native American girl (Wanda Hendrix) in town for the festival. They are wonderful characters, and the innocence of Hendrix’s ultra-serious schoolgirl and the generosity and loyalty of Gomez’s drinking buddy doesn’t just provide balance to the criminal story. These characters have an effect of Gagin, who isn’t corrupt as much as disillusioned. They bring out his innate but suppressed sense of compassion.
The film is both tough and touching, with crackling dialogue (scripted by the great Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes) and stylized scenes (the town was mostly recreated in the studio). And while it doesn’t have the sense of doom so common to film noir, the cast of crooks and double-crossing schemers is as mercenary and cowardly and tawdry as any you’ll find.
Criterion gives the film its Blu-ray and DVD debut in a superb digital master—I love noir black-and-white on Blu-ray—with commentary by film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, an interview with film noir expert Imogen Sara Smith (she delves into the rural noir tradition), and the 1947 “Lux Radio Theater” adaptation of the film with the three main stars. See a clip of her interview below.
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – George Sanders is the most urbane and silkily decadent of noir knaves and other screen villains but in The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, he takes on both a more romantic role and a more compromised portrait of masculinity. Harry, a commercial artist in a small-town textile mill, is generous and compassionate but meek and weak-willed and dominated by his spinster sisters. He paints decorative flowers for a living and when he goes on a date with Deborah (Ella Raines), a visiting consultant from the city, he dutifully steps back and plays third-wheel role when a coworker hijacks the evening. But Deborah, modern and driven and self-sufficient, takes the lead in this romance and Harry’s sister Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who plays the invalid and keeps Harry under her control with guilt, declares war. And as Deborah is no match for Lettie, Ella Raines is no match for Geraldine Fitzgerald. She doesn’t always come to mind in discussions of the great noir actresses, but she is in her few appearances in the genre. Lettie is neurotic, obsessive, and manipulative, cousin to her Crystal of Three Strangers, and her need for Harry’s attentions borders on incestuous. It’s a creepy twist on two women competing for a man.
If Robert Siodmak is not the greatest film noir director of all time, he is one of the definitive and surely the most prolific. And if The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry isn’t really a film noir in the traditional sense, it has the emotional darkness, the play of impulse and guilt and vengeance, and a true femme fatale. In some ways it’s also a gothic melodrama dragged into wartime America (their first date is a women’s baseball game), with Harry’s family home a relic of the past, like a manor out of Edgar Allen Poe haunted by a possessive lover, in a modern (if generic) world where women are empowered and desirable men are scarce.
It’s another film in the “it’s a dream” tradition, which in large part was to placate censors, but that doesn’t sweep away the dark turns of this film. Not when you consider just whose subconscious is coming through this nightmare, and just what kind of suppressed desires and conscience-stricken guilt his disturbed heart of darkness projects into it.
Olive Films gives the film its DVD and Blu-ray debut with a well-mastered transfer of an unrestored print. The image is crisp with good detail and contrasts but signification wear at the heads and tails of some reels. We await a restoration but this will suffice nicely in the meantime.
Thunder Road (Timeless, Blu-ray+DVD), produced by star Robert Mitchum from his own original story, is an energetic little genre piece about moonshine running and a primal example of the outlaw road movie genre. Though a little old for his part, producer/star Robert Mitchum is all sleepy-eyed, surly charm as a Kentucky bootlegger who battles both local cops and mobsters trying to muscle their way into the state to protect his business. Keely Smith has little to do as his girlfriend but has a couple of great nightclub numbers and Mitchum’s son James is fine as his hero-worshipping younger brother. Mitchum also composed and sang the theme song.
It’s directed by Arthur Ripley, a former silent movie gag man who largely worked in shorts, B-movies and TV but also made the cult noir item The Chase (1946). Between that and Thunder Road, Ripley’s name is secured, at least among fans of classic genre films. This is a low budget gem with attitude to burn and it gets its Blu-ray debut in this two-disc combo release. It’s a dark film—a lot of nighttime chases—but it’s sharp and clean.