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Tag Archives: Robert Montgomery

Ride the Pink Horse (Oct. 8, 1947)

Ride the Pink Horse
Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
Directed by Robert Montgomery
Universal Pictures

Robert Montgomery directed and starred in two movies released in 1947. The first, Lady in the Lake, was an interesting stylistic experiment — an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel that was filmed entirely from private eye Philip Marlowe’s point of view. The second, Ride the Pink Horse, is more traditionally lensed. It’s based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, with a screenplay by Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht. It’s also the better of the two films, so naturally it’s the one that isn’t available on DVD.

Besides being a more satisfying and involving film, Ride the Pink Horse also lets Montgomery flex his acting chops. In Lady in the Lake, since we only see what he’s seeing, all we hear is his voice, and his performance is somewhat listless.

The character Montgomery plays in Ride the Pink Horse — Lucky Gagin — is a noir archetype; the returning veteran of World War II. But unlike baroque, oneiric noirs like Somewhere in the Night (1946), in which a veteran suffers amnesia, brainwashing, or any number of high-concept emotional injuries, Montgomery’s character in Ride the Pink Horse is believable as a returning combat veteran. Lucky Gagin is a bitter, tight-lipped man whom violence hangs over like a dark cloud. As soon as he steps off a Greyhound bus in the little town of San Pablo, New Mexico, we can read in his face miles of hard road, lost friends, and random death.

Lucky Gagin is obviously a less intelligent person than the man who plays him, and I wasn’t always convinced that Gagin was as dumb as some of his words and actions, but Montgomery’s performance is mostly believable. His pain-wracked sneer is especially easy to buy, which is good, since Gagin spends half the film clinging to life, bleeding out from a knife wound.

Room 315

Gagin is in New Mexico to blackmail racketeer and war profiteer Frank Hugo (Frank Clark) with a canceled check that proves Hugo’s involvement in criminal enterprise. Hugo ridicules Gagin for asking for a paltry amount. Nevertheless, there’s the sense hanging over the film that whether Gagin asks for one dollar or a million, he’ll never get it.

In one of those little touches that I love, Hugo wears a hearing aid, and he often has to move the receiver clipped to his shirt into a better position to hear what’s going on. It’s never played for laughs, but it humanizes him, which makes his power and malevolence all the more believable.

Like a lot of thrillers, Ride the Pink Horse is replete with characters whose motivations are vague and mysterious. The most mysterious of all is the Mexican-American Indian girl Pila (Wanda Hendrix), who develops an unnatural attachment to Gagin as soon as he steps off the bus. She foresees his death, and gives him a little doll to carry that she says will protect him. She also follows him around for the entire picture, despite the fact that he’s constantly mean to her. Long braids and brownface notwithstanding, Hendrix isn’t very believable as an American aboriginal, but she’s nice to look at, which makes up for a lot.

Montgomery

The other angels who come into Gagin’s life — and who might be able to help him if he could only get over his distrust of everyone — are an elderly G-man named Bill Retz (Art Smith), who wants Gagin to help him bring in Hugo using legal means, and a chubby, good-natured Mexican named Pancho (Thomas Gomez), who runs a carousel, and who gives Gagin a place to sleep.

It’s Pancho’s carousel that gives the picture its title, but if there’s a deeper meaning to the pink merry-go-round horse, I couldn’t suss it out. Does it symbolize death? Life? Everything? Nothing? Your guess is as good as mine.

Ride the Pink Horse is a crisp, well-made thriller. It’s not quite an all-time classic, but it’s worth a look, especially if you’re a noir aficionado, and it’s well deserving of a proper DVD release.

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Lady in the Lake (Jan. 23, 1947)

Lady in the Lake
Lady in the Lake (1947)
Directed by Robert Montgomery
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake is a one-of-a-kind experience. Like a lot of one-of-a-kind experiences, it’s one that some people will never want to experience ever again after it’s over.

It’s not like any other movie you’ll ever see, but the fact that its central gimmick was never used again should tell you something.

The gimmick is that nearly the entire film is shot in a first-person point of view (POV). The film is a series of long tracking shots, but there are a few jump cuts and wipes when necessary. The trailer for Lady in the Lake told audiences that the film stars Robert Montgomery … “and you!” But this isn’t entirely true, for reasons that we’ll get into later.

Lady in the Lake is an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1944 novel The Lady in the Lake, and stars Montgomery as private investigator Philip Marlowe (whose first name in this movie is spelled “Phillip”). Montgomery also directed the film — his first time as director, although he provided uncredited directorial assistance to John Ford when he starred in Ford’s World War II PT boat saga They Were Expendable (1945).

The only parts of the film that aren’t filmed from Marlowe’s POV — every actor interacting directly with the camera, Montgomery’s face only visible if he happens to look in a mirror — are stiff monologues by Montgomery as Marlowe, seated at his desk in his office, speaking directly to the viewer. These monologues are used to introduce the picture and to cover some gaps in the narrative.

Montgomery begins the films by telling viewers that they will be solving the mystery alongside him. He recites a street address and says, “make a note of it.” The problem with this is immediately clear. The film will continue to spool forward for you the same way it does for everyone else in the audience, whether you remember the address or not.

A first-person POV version of a Chandler novel must have made sense on paper. Chandler was a master of first-person narration, and his brilliant prose made first-person narration inextricable from the P.I. genre.

But first-person POV in film is very different from first-person narration in a novel. Despite what many critics of slasher films in the ’80s would have had you believe, first-person POV in a film does not create identification with the killer, it makes the viewer feels trapped and terrified.

While you’re unlikely to feel terrified while watching Lady in the Lake, it does inspire a sense of claustrophobia and surreality that is at odds with its goal of putting the viewer in the center of the action like no film had before.

Lady in the Lake begins in an odd fashion, as Marlowe tries to sell his semi-autobiographical story “If I Should Die Before I Wake” to magazine editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter). When Fromsett’s stacked and gorgeous blond secretary (Lila Leeds) enters the office, she makes eyes at Marlowe, and the camera tracks her as she sashays out of the office. The eye contact she maintains with the camera is unbearably erotic. It’s ridiculous in terms of an actual narrative, but it works in the heat of the moment, like a tomahawk flying out of the screen in a 3D western. (Proponents of the “male gaze” theory can have a field day with this film.)

Audrey Totter

The problem with Lady in the Lake isn’t just its technique, it’s the fact that most of the actors interact with the camera in an unnatural fashion. Most of them never look away or even blink. Totter is the worst offender. She’s pretty, but her habit of arching one eyebrow while speaking to the camera is bizarre.

When Marlowe asks Fromsett a question — “What would happen if I kissed you?” — there’s no heat or interplay. It’s a purely technical question. If Marlowe kisses her, where will the camera go? Will it smoosh up against her face?

The only actor who interacts well with the camera is Lloyd Nolan, who plays the nasty and volatile police detective Lt. DeGarmot. Unlike the other actors — who seem afraid to break eye contact with the camera — he looks down, and around, occasionally turns his back on Marlowe, and steps forward to be threatening. In a memorable scene, he even slaps the camera in the “face” several times while sneering.

Lady in the Lake takes place during the Christmas holiday, and there’s very little incidental music, except for an eerie holiday vocal choir that shows up every now and then on the soundtrack.

While the first-person POV of Lady in the Lake doesn’t always work, there are a number of interesting “verité” moments, such as the scene in which Marlowe and the viewer sit around while observing Capt. Kane (Tom Tully) on the phone with his daughter on Christmas Eve. He’s embarrassed to be on a personal call while at work, but he chats with her anyway. There’s also an amazing quiet moment when Marlowe wakes up in Fromsett’s house on Christmas day, and the camera observes her lounging on the opposite couch in the living room, smoke curling out from behind the camera (Marlowe’s having a cigarette), as she and Marlowe listen to an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” on the radio.

Because of the nature of the film, I still don’t feel as if I’ve ever seen Robert Montgomery play Philip Marlowe. He seems like a good choice for the character, since he bears a resemblance to Marlowe’s creator, Raymond Chandler, but his disembodied voice was too monotone to make up for the fact that he’s off-screen for most of the movie.

First-person POV would be used again in 1947 for the first section of Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage, and for memorable moments in other films, like the opening murder sequence in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and a fistfight in Gordon Parks’s Shaft (1971), but this was the only time it would be used for an entire motion picture.

I actually really enjoyed Lady in the Lake, even though I think it’s a failed experiment. It’s worth seeing at least once by anyone who’s interested in film, and there are enough powerful, uncanny, and interesting moments to make up for the long stretches of flaccidity.

They Were Expendable (Dec. 20, 1945)

It has become clear to me that John Ford does something for others that he doesn’t do for me. Active from the silent era through the ’60s, Ford is regularly listed as one of the greatest American directors of all time, as well as one of the most influential.

It’s not that I don’t like his films. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve seen. But aside from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), I haven’t loved any of them. Ford’s influence on the western is hard to overstate, and I respect what films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) did to elevate the genre, but I wouldn’t count either as one of my favorite westerns.

They Were Expendable was Ford’s first war movie. It is a fictionalized account of the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in the early, disastrous days of America’s war in the Pacific. Based on the book by William L. White, the film stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. John Brickley, who believes that small, light PT (patrol torpedo) boats are the perfect crafts to use against the much-larger ships in the Japanese fleet. Despite the speed and maneuverability of PT boats, the top Naval brass reject Lt. Brickley’s plan, but he persists in equipping the boats and training his men, and they eventually launch attacks against the Japanese, and even use PT boats to evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family when the situation in the Philippines goes from bad to worse.

They Were Expendable is a product of its time. When the actor playing MacArthur is shown (he is never named and has no lines, but it’s clear who he is supposed to be), the musical score is so overblown that it elevates MacArthur to the level of Abraham Lincoln, or possibly Jesus Christ. The bona fides of the film’s star are asserted in the credits; he is listed as “Robert Montgomery, Comdr. U.S.N.R.” (Montgomery really was a PT skipper in World War II, and did some second unit direction on the film.) And in keeping with the film’s patriotic tone, the combat efficacy of PT boats against Japanese destroyers is probably overstated. (This is also the case in White’s book, which was based solely on interviews with the young officers profiled.)

None of this was a problem for me. What was a problem was the inconsistent tone of the picture, exemplified by the two main characters. Montgomery underplays his role, but you can see the anguish behind his stoic mask. He demonstrates the value of bravery in the face of almost certain defeat. On the other hand, John Wayne, as Lt. (J.G.) “Rusty” Ryan, has swagger to spare, and is hell-bent for leather the whole time. He even finds time to romance a pretty nurse, 2nd Lt. Sandy Davyss (played by Donna Reed). Wayne doesn’t deliver a bad performance, but it’s a performance that seems better suited to a western than a film about the darkest days of America’s war against the Japanese.

Maybe we can blame Ford and Wayne’s previous work together, and their comfort with a particular genre. Reports that Ford (who served in the navy in World War II and made combat documentaries) constantly berated Wayne during the filming of They Were Expendable for not serving in the war don’t change the fact that the two men made many westerns together before this, and would make many after it. Several scenes in They Were Expendable feel straight out of a western. Determined to have an Irish wake for one of his fallen brothers, Wayne forces a Filipino bar owner to stay open, even though the bar owner is trying to escape with his family in the face of reports that the Japanese are overrunning the islands. Even more out of place is the scene in which the old shipwright who repairs the PT boats, “Dad” Knowland (Russell Simpson), refuses to leave the shack where he’s lived and worked in the Philippines since the turn of the century. Wayne eventually gives up trying to persuade him to evacuate, and leaves him on his front porch with a shotgun across his lap and a jug of moonshine next to him, as “Red River Valley” plays in the background.

The scenes of combat in They Were Expendable are well-handled, and the picture looks great. Montgomery is particularly good in his role. As war movies from the ’40s go, it’s not bad, but far from the best I’ve seen.