By Brian Saur
This was a movie that I chased for a little while before I was finally able to see it. A friend of mine stumbled across its existence and on paper it sounded pretty cool (especially with a script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer). I think my buddy finally tracked down a taped-off-television VHS and rented it from one of Los Angeles' then many thriving and eclectic video stores. I feel like he watched it first and told me about it which built up its mythology even more. When I was able to see it for myself for the first time, I loved it. It was one of those rare gems that we as movie fans are always on the lookout for. It's like that reason that some folk go to garage sales and estate sales - they are hoping to one day find that amazing score that someone else has undervalued. RIDE THE PINK HORSE is that kind of movie and to be honest I wasn't sure when (if ever) it would see any kind of home video release, let alone the deluxe Criterion Collection Blu-ray treatment - which it finally got a few years back.
Robert Montgomery was not quite a Charles Laughton story of a director, but he was close. Laughton is of course famous for having only directed one amazing film (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER) and then calling it quits. Montgomery directed more than a couple times, the most notable of his efforts (beyond PINK HORSE) being LADY IN THE LAKE which he starred in with Audrey Totter. If you've seen LADY IN THE LAKE you'd remember that the whole film is basically done from the main character's POV. It's not bad, if kinda gimmicky. RIDE THE PINK HORSE stands out a bit more in my opinion. In fact, I think it's one of the great underappreciated noirs of all-time. Montgomery directs it well with a fluid camera and some nice touches. He also brings his own specific grumpy character which he had sort of developed over the years into this new environment. It allows for some humor to seep into the movie and makes it that much better.
It has a certain kinship with one of the noir heavyweights in OUT OF THE PAST in that both films forfeit the normal urban landscapes for some less than exotic south of the border locales. I'll always link the two films together because of that. It's almost as if Mitchum and Montgomery could end up at the same bar somehow in this conjoined noir-verse. This dusty, less than economically upscale environment somehow fits perfectly for noir. Author Imogen Sara Smith says Mexico is often seen as "..this transient, lawless, desperate place" in the context of these films and and she is right on the money. At least there are police in the city. They may be corrupt but there is at least the illusion of civility there. Things in Mexico seem like all bets are off and nobody can be trusted especially where the "law" is concerned (or at least that's how the American characters perceive it).
For a movie starring Humphrey Bogart, it is kinda shocking this one isn't spoken of in the same way or as often as some of his greats. In this absolute gem, Bogey plays U.S. Army Master Sergeant Joe Gunn - a commander in charge of an M3 tank fighting in Libya during the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. He and his men get separated from their unit and the tension rises as they are on the lookout for a possible impending attack by the Germans. This ranks as one of my favorite war movies and I think part of it comes from Bogart, but another aspect that stands out is the desert location and the tank itself.
I've seen a few tank movies here and there, but none that grabbed me quite like this one does. There's an emotional aspect to it that is especially memorable and the film would seem to have served as some sort of partial inspiration for David Ayer's 2014 tank movie FURY, starring Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf. SAHARA was directed by Zoltan Korda who had worked with his brother on some other high profile classic adventure films like THE JUNGLE BOOK (1942) and THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940).
I am a gigantic fan of Val Lewton and the low budget horror film work he did for RKO in the 1940s. He and his unit cranked out a bunch of interesting and atmospheric movies in a very short period of time. From about 1942 to 1946, he producer 8 or 9 movies that I think are all pretty strong, but the most well-known of the bunch is probably CAT PEOPLE (which was a big hit at the time). THE LEOPARD MAN was his third effort and was based on the novel Black Alibi, by Cornell Woolrich (whose work would be the basis for other stuff like REAR WINDOW and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK among many others). The film is set in New Mexico and stars Dennis O'Keefe (who I always remember from the Anthony Mann noirs RAW DEAL and T-MEN, which would come out a few years later) as a gentleman who hires a leopard to help out his girlfriend who is performing in a local nightclub act.
Things go awry though when the leopard gets loose from the nightclub and ends up killing a young girl (in a fantastically suspenseful sequence that has one of the great jump scares of all time). So it becomes something of an early "animal attack" movie in the back half and I am a huge fan of that sub-genre so it's just the ticket for me. Though a lot of the Lewton-produced films are not as well known as they should be - I feel like THE LEOPARD MAN is still undervalued among the work he did and deserves to have more eyes on it. Director William Friedkin is a big fan of this one as well and even did an audio commentary that was featured on the DVD release.
A lesser-seen effort from the great Billy Wilder and one that despite my gigantic fandom for the man, I didn't see until a ways into my interest in his work. It stars Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland as a couple folks who meet fatefully on a train ride. Rogers' character has disguised herself as a child to get a cheaper fare after she calls it quits on New York City to return home to Stevenson, Iowa. Milland plays Major Philip Kirby who is suckered into believing that Rogers' character is in fact a little girl when she ducks into his compartment after a nosy conductor becomes suspicious. She's forced to even continue the ruse further when she ends up meeting Milland's fiance and her family and wackiness ensues.
As with most Wilder films, some of the films humor is predicated on deliberate miscommunications and sly trickery. There's a lot of risque stuff in the film based on what the characters think is going on (her character supposedly being only 12 years old), but the fact that we the audience know the truth makes it all very sketchy and weird and clever at the same time.
I love the tagline for the movie: "Is She a Kid... or Is She Kidding?"
Brian Saur is a podcaster and blogger from Los Angeles that specializes in cult and classic films. He is co-host of the Pure Cinema Podcast and also produces and hosts another show called Just the Discs, which focuses on Blu-rays. He has run the Rupert Pupkin Speaks website since its inception in 2009 and continues to highlight obscure cinematic gems there on a regular basis. Follow him on Twitter (@bobfreelander, @justthediscspod, @purecinemapod), Facebook, or Instagram for more film recommendations.