DOROTHY B. HUGHES – Ride the Pink Horse. Duell, Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1946. Dell #210, mapback edition, date? [1948. See comments.] Reprinted many times since.

RIDE THE PINK HORSE. Universal, 1947. Robert Montgomery, Wanda Hendrix, Andrea King, Thomas Gomez, Fred Clark, Art Smith, Martin Garralaga and John Doucette. Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. Directed by Robert Montgomery. Available on DVD but not found on any streaming platform at the present time.

   I wish I’d read the book first. Having seen the movie and its made-for-TV remake (The Hanged Man, 1964, directed by Don Siegel), I wasn’t fully attuned to what Dorothy B Hughes was doing until the last pages.

   What she was doing was taking a tough gangster tale and turning it into a metaphysical hike into Hell. When the story opens, a tough Chicago hood called Sailor arrives in a small New Mexico town to collect a debt from a senator (called Sen) who doesn’t want to pay. Since the debt in question is Sailor’s fee for killing Sen’s wife, the matter has to be settled with some delicacy, but Sailor is tough, smart, and up to the job.

   Or so he thinks. But he’s walking into a trap set for him not by Sen, but by a cruel universe. The small town is the scene of a local festival that has filled every hotel and spare bed in town, so Sailor has to hustle just for the necessities. The mix of frolic, need, superstition, duplicity, and spirituality that mark the pageant have an odd effect on his psyche, awakening old memories and vague fears, hemming him in with uncaring crowds who speak a foreign language — but it’s Sailor who is the real foreigner in an alien landscape.

   Hughes fills the story with memorable characters: a thoughtful cop, the weaselly senator, a mysterious girl, an earthy laborer, bartenders, clerks, and a lovely innocent, seen only at a distance until a final corrosive moment when…. But I’m telling too much.

   Suffice it to say that Hughes evokes a struggle for Sailor’s soul, with self-appointed guardian angels rolling the dice against the darker forces (the name Sen seems meaningful here) that keep pulling him into nightmare. She also keeps us firmly caged in Sailor’s perceptions, as she did with the killer of In a Lonely Place, making this is a tale to compare with the most harrowing pulp nightmares of Jim Thompson and David Goodis.

   Robert Montgomery softened the story out of necessity – the murdered wife ploy becomes a bit of extortion attempted by a rubbed-out friend of Sailor’s (here named Lucky Gagin) and the Senatoris now a war profiteer, superbly limned by Fred Clark, one of the finest and most unsung character actors of his time.

   Likewise, Thomas Gomez does quite well as the sweaty and philosophical Mexican carousel impresario, Art Smith makes a surprisingly gentle G-Man, Wanda Hendrix combines a mysterious mien with a touching teenage crush, and Andrea King provides chills as one of the coldest femmes fatales in all of noir.

   Robert Montgomery directs smoothly and unobtrusively, as if apologizing for his work on Lady in the Lake (1946). Looking back on it, Lake was a mistake that someone had to make sooner or later, but that’s a discussion for another day. The only problem with Montgomery in Ride the Pink Horse is that he lacks the type-cast toughness that Bogart, Cagney, or Dick Powell could have brought to the role. He’s obviously acting here, acting very well, but still not living the part.

   I saw the TV remake sometime in my callow youth, and I wish I could have watched it again for this piece, but it seems to have sunk into the oblivion that swallowed all too many films of its ilk. Too bad, for I remember it fondly.