“I'm nobody's friend. The man with no place.” -Lucky Gagin
This post is for the 1947 Blogathon hosted by Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy. Check out both of their pages for a recap of this blogathon and all the posts regarding this amazing year in film!
Carousels are interesting. While I am not a fan of roller coasters, I get them. Carousels I do not. Granted I am no longer a child, the main customer of the carousel. What is interesting to me about the carousel is that you can be simultaneously moving yet stationary. Moving around a fixed point, you eventually come back to the point where you began. Unless of course you’re riding with Mary Poppins. Riding a carousel can also give the illusion that you are stationary and that those outside of the carousel are moving. It is only when ou reach your starting point that you regain your bearings.
Many things in life, such as karma, are said to have a spherical effect. “What goes around, comes around” is a phrase we say to others when trying bestow the karmic effects of their poor decisions. This usually relates to revenge. That those who have wronged us in some way will inevitably get theirs. Be it through our doing, fate, or the universe’s. And that balance will somehow be restored. For the most part, we want this to be from our own doing. The best revenge in living well, as I have often been told. And in Ride the Pink Horse (1947), Lucky Gagin is trying to do just that.
In 1947, two years after World War II, Robert Montgomery directed and starred in two films; Lady in the Lake and Ride the Pink Horse. Having stepped behind the camera for the first time with Lady in the Lake, giving the audience a film almost entirely shot in first person POV. He now turned the camera back around and on himself in Ride the Pink Horse. Released in October of 1947, Ride the Pink Horse is somewhat lesser known than Lady. But it stands out as one of the best noir films of that year. A year that gave us, Out of the Past, Lady from Shanghai, and Nightmare Alley. With it long takes, inventive camera angles, unusual staging, atypical settings and dramatic acting Ride the Pink Horse has a unique look within the noir canon.
The film begins as the camera following a bus in what could be a commercial for Greyhound, talk about product placement. The bus pulls in the the station at San Pablo. Among those departing the bus is Lucky Gagin. He makes his way into the station, past natives selling trinkets, to a seat in the terminal. He pulls out a gun and a check. Two forms of paying someone back. He takes the check and tosses it into a locker. Then gets some gum, chews it, and uses it to stick the locker key to the back of a large map situated in the terminal. His movements are slow. The camera mimics his movements, with its slow tracking of him from the bus to his exit with no cuts.
The La Fonda Hotel is difficult to find, at least for Lucky it is. Whether it is bad directions, fate or happen change, Lucky stumbles across Pancho’s carousel and three senoritas. One of these young ladies can’t stop staring at him. Pila knows the way to the La Fonda. It’s on the other side of town, a much different looking area than where they are. Before parting ways she gives him a small idol of the Mayan goddess for his protection. Apparently she knows something bad is going to happen to him. The hotel has no vacancies due to the fiesta that starting. But that’s ok, it still serves Lucky’s purpose. At room 315 the man he is looking for isn’t in. He meets Jonathan
“You his barber?
“I’m Mr. Hugo’s private secretary”
“To bad, I was going to ask you for a shave.”
After punching Jonathan in the stomach he meet miss Marjorie . She explains she's about to have dinner with Mr. Hugo. She’s a little eager to help Lucky. Lucky needs a place to crash for the night until Hugo returns. The bellboy informs him of a local place that might be able to put him up. He heads there and outside runs into Pila once again. She’s waiting for her girlfriends who are inside meeting muchachos. Something of which she has no interest. Lucky goes in, the music stops. He is not a regular apparently. Inquiring for a place to sleep leads to tequila and currency that can’t be changed. Tequila leads to making some new friends, it almost always does. Immediately befriended by Pancho. Lucky finds himself back where he started, at the carousel. Pila has been waiting and follows him intently. Even though Pancho insists she is too skinny and that there will be much nicer girls tomorrow at the fiesta. Pila gets her first ride on the carousel per Lucky’s choice, “the pink one”. They even get a nice visit from Retz, Lucky’s other fan. The next morning Pila gets a lesson in what it takes to look like a human. Lucky gets a lesson in the fortune of finding a new bucket. And Pancho doesn’t have a hangover.
Lucky finally gets to meet Mr. Hugo in his room to discuss a proposition he has for him. A proposition Hugo has heard before, from Lucky’s late friend Shorty. Hugo doesn’t seem to mind that Lucky wants to raise the price from $15,000 to 30,000 for the check he wants. Because they are one in the same, the same type of person. They agree to meet at the Tip Top Cafe at 7. During lunch in the hotel, Pila and Lucky are interrupted before they can even eat their fruit salad. Marjorie has a proposition for Lucky. They use this situation to set themselves up for life, milking money out of Hugo. Lucky doesn’t like this dead fish of a plan.
At the Tip Top things are not as the cafe name implies. The money hasn’t arrived. So Lucky is forced to wait, dance a little, light a cigarette, and get stabbed. To the demise of the men who attacked him. Pila finds Lucky and returns him to Pancho. They patch him up slightly bu only to have to move again. Pancho is questioned by a couple of men, in what may be my favorite scene in the film. The camera fixed on the children as they pass on the carousel. Giving the audience only glimpses of Pancho's attack. They are pursued through the cantina, finally making it to the bus to leave San Pablo. It turns out the fiesta has brought everyone out to party. Including the ticket salesman. Lucky is left on the bus. In a stupor, he gets up and retracts his footsteps back to the La Fonda. There Hugo and his men try to get the missing check from Lucky and eventually Pila. Retz steps in at the last moment before both of them are killed. Lucky regains coherency enough to give the check to Retz. It is all over except for the goodbyes.
San Pablo is busy. All the hotels are booked with tourists visiting. The La Fonda gift shop is bustling. Everyone is there to enjoy the native fiesta. The burning of Zozorbra, who brings bad luck, is a symbol all those at the fiesta can get behind. All members of the town are in attendance with even outsiders coming in to the town. In anthropology this type of event is leveling mechanism. A leveling mechanism is a cultural event which is intended to lessen economic differences between groups within the society. Whereas, all members come together and share in distribution and exchange. The backdrop for the story is also this fiesta. And like that in a cultural sense, it also brings the characters together. Those that would not normally speak to each other or interact with each other do. Pila has come to San Pablo for the fiesta. The increased number of people in town lead Lucky to meet Pancho.
Gagin is also attempting to even out some economics between himself and Hugo. He is the poster boy for existential noir characters. He has no place, no friends. He is alienated by the world around him. Returning home from the war, he is unable to find a place in the post war America. He returns from abroad to an America he doesn’t recognize. The people don’t speak the same language as him even though this is his country. The film brings the audience into that alienation. Spanish spoken in the film has no subtitles. We are left to wonder, like Lucky, what the characters are saying. This puts us in Lucky’s place. Unless of course you speak Spanish. Lucky doesn’t care for anything or anyone, except his singular purpose, revenge. That and money.
Whereas Lucky is concerned only with money, Pancho does not concern himself whatsoever with it. In a way Pancho has more freedom than Lucky. He does not alienate himself from others, but welcomes them into his home. Only needing a place to sleep and a good friend to keep him happy. Lucky offers Pancho $5,000 of his cut after he takes a beating for him. Money is the only way he can bring restitution. Pancho doesn’t see it this way. He embraces their friendship from the beginning and all the bad things that may come of it. He is wiser than Lucky, knowing that money can’t fix your problems. “When you're young, everybody sticks knife in you.” he tells Lucky. Implying that when you’re young you make mistakes in seeking things that aren’t really important. And maybe on occasion you get stabbed in the back a few times.
These two characters are polar opposites of the same independent man. One who sees the world where he has no place and another who sees it as all his place.
The name of the film implies the importance of the carousel. It ties Pancho, Pila and Lucky to each other. Returning to it often. It is a place where childhood memories are made. Where children are free to imagine. It can also be a place of entrapment. Children are forced to watch in circular repetition as Pancho is beaten by Hugo’s men who are looking for Gagin. It remains stationary while the characters move around it.
The pink horse is more than just a random suggestion. It is a metaphor for a childhood Pila has missed out on. Lucky asks if she’s ever ridden on a carousel before. When she says she hasn’t he wakes up Pancho from his tequila slumber to give her one go around. It is in a sense Pila’s right of passage into modernity by way of a 19th century amusement ride. To participate in childhood for a brief moment. But all good things must come to an end. And once the rotation is complete she must return to the normalcy of the hear and now.
Lucky’s journey is cyclical like the carousel. Beginning almost a repetition of another man’s journey, Lucky is trying to do the same thing to the same man that his friend did. Picking up where Shorty left off in the cycle. Although Lucky has determined himself to be on his own, friendless and therefore in a sense a free man, he is not. Like that of the children who were caught on the carousel, Lucky is trapped. In loop which is doomed to return him to where it began, death. This cycling plays out visually toward the climax of the film. After being stabbed and put on the bus by Pila he exists the bus and retraces his steps in an almost robotic fashion. Repeating almost everything he we saw him do in the day. Essentially going through the motions. Like that of the carousel he is beholding to a fixed pattern. Though in the end he breaks the cycle. Only through intervention of others does he do this.
Ride the Pink Horse gives us a view of a changing American landscape outside of the city. It is about alienation, revenge, and the circular nature of life. So are we on a fixed pattern or are we free? I will leave that up to you to decide. But the only way to find out is to get on the carousel. But you can choose the color of your horse.
I watched the Criterion Blu-Ray of this film. Check it out here. Also, check out the book and others written by Hughes.
The Distracted Blogger
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