Ride the Pink Horse (1947), a Classic Post-War Film Noir, Starring and Directed by Robert Montgomery, Part I
“The common man has won the war and lost his livelihood.”
You came out with strings to dangle your medals.
The first quote was by Thorstein Veblen, in his brilliant comp book, The Engineers and the Price System (1921) composed of essays he’d written in 1919, shortly after war’s end. The second is a paraphrase of a line by a character in Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse, federal agent, Retz (Art Smith), to Montgomery’s embittered, cynical character, Lucky Gagin.
Retz knows all about Gagin, and does his best to keep him alive. He is one of Gagin’s three guardian angels. Gagin returns the favor by calling Retz “Uncle,” for Uncle Sam, but it’s not meant with affection. Uncle Sam is no friend of his, and Retz understands perfectly.
The disillusioned, embittered war veteran was a staple of Hollywood, and was a real, American social type.
In Raoul Walsh’s gangster masterpiece, The Roaring Twenties (1939), when Jimmy Cagney’s character, Eddie Bartlett, returns from WWI combat in the infantry to reclaim the taxi driver job his boss had promised would be waiting for him, as the boss reneges on his promise, the new workers, combat shirkers all, mock Eddie with an Army “Jody call”:
“You had a good job
But you left!
You had a good job
But you left!
Eddie responds by slugging one shirker, who falls into the others, tumbling them all, like so many bowling pins, and embarks on a life of crime.
Writers who had been adults when the Great War ended, recalled the type, when our boys came home from WWII. The feds did learn some lessons—the G.I. Bill and military-industrial complex ensured that there would be no Hoovervilles—but as embodied in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), still there were at least two classes of men who did not serve, and who took advantage of the absence of the now haunted men who had put their lives on the line for their country.
One such character was “Stinky” Merkle, who had been drug store assistant soda jerk to Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) before The War. While Fred, “killer of a hundred men,” dropped bombs on Germans as a bombardier, and made it to captain, Stinky stayed home and moved up. Now Fred is back to being a soda jerk, and must address Stinky, who now wears a suit and tie, as “Mr. Merkle.” Like organization man Stinky Merkle, the drug store director who represents the chain that bought out the kindly old founder and gave him a sinecure doesn’t give a hoot about Fred’s sacrifices.
The second type is Mr. Milton (Ray Collins: Citizen Kane, Perry Mason, etc.), the president of the local bank, where Sgt. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) worked before the war, and now has his job back, with a promotion to vice-president, to put out a friendly face to veterans.
Al hates Milton with a purple passion, such that he cannot talk to him on the telephone without the protection of a drink in one hand, and a cigarette in the other. Whenever he mentions Mr. Milton to his wife, Millie (brilliantly underplayed by Myrna Loy), he always refers to him as “the old hypocrite.”
While March at times hams it up (e.g., whenever he gets drunk), and at the high point of his professional life during a hilarious drunken speech he gives at a dinner thrown in his honor comes one sentence from committing professional suicide (Millie subtly rescues him), his performance consists of layers upon layers of different degrees of hamminess and subtlety.
Mr. Milton, who has never gone in harm’s way, has the local monopoly on administering G.I. Bill loans. Even though because the feds guarantee the loans, which thus require no collateral, he seeks to find pretexts to cheat returning G.I.s out of their due (e.g., by demanding collateral he knows they don’t have, and legally don’t need). In Robert E. Sherwood’s (The Petrified Forest, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Man on a Tightrope) screenplay, he wrote a brilliant speech for March—the one that almost gets Al fired—in which he mercilessly mocks Milton, describing a scenario in which he defies his commanding officer’s order to take a hill. “That requires collateral, sir. No collateral, no hill!...
“And that’s why we lost the war.”
While the class antagonisms in the movie are unmistakable, they are much louder in the movie’s source material, Mackinlay Kantor’s moving, 268-page prose poem, Glory for Me. While I can fully appreciate Mack Kantor’s take on class conflict, his story was unfilmable. Bob Sherwood, who at the time was, with Ben Hecht (The Front Page and Notorious) and Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), one of the world’s three greatest screenwriters, rescued the project.
Another character in BYOL represents a third type—Cliff (Steve Cochran), a guy who “served” himself, was probably involved in contraband and the black market in the service, and who now is mobbed up, and openly sleeping with Fred Derry’s slutty wife, Marie.
In Pink Horse, a motley crew of types like Cliff surround mobster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark, in his first movie role). But they’re not smooth, like Cliff. They play with knives.
Robert Montgomery plays the protagonist, Lucky Gagan. Lucky’s war buddy, “Shorty,” from their post out in the South Pacific, worked for Hugo, but tried to blackmail him. Hugo gave Shorty a fat check, but the blackmailer never lived to cash it.
Before Shorty got it, he’d given the check to his best friend, Lucky. (Actually, everyone refers to Lucky simply as “Gagan,” if they know that much.)
In Dorothy B. Hughes’ popular, eponymous novel, the protagonist is called “Sailor,” and the head cut-throat is a Senator whom Sailor refers to simply as “Sen.” Sen had his wife murdered, and Sailor is blackmailing him. According to Red Eddie Muller, because Bob Montgomery rubbed shoulders with senators and the like, he had to have the big cheese’s racket changed… to the rackets.
Gagan has gotten nowhere since leaving the service. “I'm nobody's friend. The man with no place.” He wants to blackmail Hugo for $30,000, but he’s just going to get himself killed.
Frank Hugo doesn’t hand over money like that to anyone. He’s a killer. He does the blackmailing.
The first time Gagan meets Hugo’s moll, Marjorie (Andrea King), he searches her bag for a gun, she responds, “You must lead a very interesting life.” She is intrigued, and promptly seeks to seduce him.
Gagan is acting rich, because he’s got his service separation pay, and he expects to be coming into a small fortune any day now. In a way, he’s smart, and in another way, he’s a fool. Smart: Later, when Marjorie offers a new blackmail scheme to soak Hugo for much more than $30,000, Gagan refuses, saying “Nobody stays up nights trying to help me.” But he’s dumb because Hugo is surrounded by killers at his beck and call, including Marjorie, while Gagan is flying solo.
Actually, Gagan has friends but he doesn’t know it. No fewer than three guardian angels keep saving his life. Each time these people meet him for the first time, they think to themselves, “This man needs help.”
San Pablo seems like Mexico. Extremely poor. Extremely Mexican. Everyone speaks Spanish. Actually, it’s in New Mexico (on the Mexican border), but you’d never know it.
Gagin can’t find a room, because it’s fiesta. The locals have a parade, followed by a ritual in which a straw effigy of the evil spirit will be set on fire, to drive him out.
Thus, although San Pablo is a small town, for two days it’s packed, and the hotels are all full. Thus, Gagin can’t find a room anywhere. In his wanderings, he runs into a fat, 40-something Mexican named Pancho, in the Akim Tamiroff ethnic role, who likes to drink to excess, who has a manana attitude, and who owns a cheap merry-go-round with a pink horse.
Pancho squeezes Gagin for drinks, and in return becomes one of his friends/guardian angels. He has no roof over his head, but graciously consents to share his open-air bed with Gagin. Gagin is still deluding himself, and tells Pancho at one point, “I’m going to make you my partner, and give you $5,000. A clear-eyed Pancho responds, “I know a lot of guys who are gonna get $5,000, but they have nothing.”
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.