Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Neo-Noir Film Review: The Last Seduction (1994)

The Last Seduction has long been one of my favorite neo-noir films. You might think it's a little derivative with similarities to Body Heat and a couple of nodding references to Double Indemnity, and maybe it ism, but even after several watchings it is still very entertaining.

The Last Seduction is available on Amazon Prime streaming. At least in the US.
Full cast and crew on IMDB.

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As the film opens we see Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) pacing around a New York City boiler room berating the people making calls selling coin sets. She has an acerbic delivery and would be a match for Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross. At the same time,  a drug deal is going down with a white guy selling pharmaceutical grade cocaine to to two black dealers. They mess with him a little then give him his $700K.

When Bridget gets home we find out that the white guy is Clay Gregory (Bill Paxton), a sketchy doctor who sell prescriptions to hop heads. While Clay is in the shower, Bridget takes the money and runs, gets to her car, and leaves the city.

Almost out of gas, she stops in the small town of Beston (near Buffalo). She goes into a bar across from the gas station. She oozes contempt for the locals and with her big city acerbic mode of speech, annoys the bartender who pointedly ignores her. Coming to her "rescue" is Mike (Peter Berg). Her approach to letting Mike take her back to his place really needs to be seen and I'm not going to attempt to describe it. You will laugh and cringe.

Bridget needs a place to lie low because Clay will be looking for her and the next day she sees a help wanted ad for an insurance company needing someone to develop leads. With her experience she is quickly hired. She convinces the company that she is hiding from an abusive husband and the let her use the name Wendy Kroy. She soon finds out that Mike is a claims adjuster with the same company and they establish a sexual relationship.

An offhand remark by Mike about being able to identify cheating husbands cross referencing credit reports and insurance records gives Wendy/Bridget an idea. She figures that they can access the company database to figure out men who are likely to have mistresses. Wendy suggests to Mike that they could sell the wives on the idea of murdering their husbands for a cut of the insurance.

I'm going to stop with the plot summary now because you really need see what happens next. There is no way do justice to what happens next.

The Last Seduction is thoroughly noir. You see in in the theme, in innocent dupe in the clutches of a highly manipulative femme fatale as well camera techniques (lighting, angles), a jazz score that flows through the film. Also there is very good noir dialogue. For example:

A lawyer to Bridget: Anyone check you for a hearbeat recently?

Mike: I'm trying to figure out whether you're a total fucking bitch or not.
Bridget: I am a total fucking bitch.

Mike: I'm starting to feel like a ...
Bridget: Sex object?

The two main characters play their roles perfectly. If you know your film noir you'll probably think of Body Heat.

Linda Fiorentino's Bridget/Wendy puts the fatale in femme. She is brilliant and you can't help but admire her. She is almost too noir, so completely amoral that she nearly becomes a caricature of the femme fatale. Throughout the film she demonstrates an ability to analyze the situations in which she finds herself and adjust accordingly. How she takes care of the private detective who tracks her down is another scene that needs to be seen to be appreciated. It's one of my favorite scenes in the film.

Mike plays the perfect foil to Wendy schemes. Being a small town boy he is no match for Wendy and doesn't realize how he has been manipulated until too late. He thinks he is acting out of love but doesn't realize that Wendy is incapable of love.

Keywords: neo-noir, film noir, crime film, erotic thriller

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Neo-Noir Film Review: The Hotel Artemis

The critic reviews left The Hotel Artemis like one of its clients, shot full of holes and bleeding.  I'm obviously not critic material since I thought it was a fun 96 minute with some genuinely clever scenes and noir dialogue and an interesting premise: a subscription only hospital where bad guys with a paid up membership can get patched up. But then I'm a sucker for neo-noir so my standards might be suspect.

The film does have very strong language, blood, and violence so if those elements are objectionable to you then you probably don't need to read further.

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The story is set against the most violent riot in California history. It is the year 2028 and water has been privatized. Clearwater Corporation has shut off the public water supply greater to Los Angeles. This has brought about a city-wide riot with the rioters attempting to move on Clearwater HQ. Opposing the rioters is ProShield, a paramilitary contractor. The rioters appear to have access to some heavy weapons since we see a helicopter shot down by a rocket.

The Artemis is run by Nurse (Jodie Foster), a agoraphobic, weary, worn, and cynical nurse with an odd shuffling walk employed by a crime lord, The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblume) who set up the hospital. She is assisted by a mountainous  orderly, Everest (Dave Bautista), who is obviously devoted to her. Already in the Artemis when the story opens are an international female assassin code named Nice and an arms dealer code named Acapulco. Nice is there with a self-inflicted wound (an excuse to get in); she is apparently on a contract hit (she only kills important people). Acapulco was severely injured by a girlfriend [?]. Soon arriving are Waikiki and his brother Honolulu who have been shot up during a botched bank job. With them is another member of the holdup gang, Buke who is not a member and is subsequently thrown out by Everest. Buke gives Nurse an opportunity to explain some of the rules  of the Artemis such as don't kill other patients and don't insult the staff.

Nurse gets a call that The Wolf King, a crime lord who owns Los Angeles, has been injured and is on his way in. With all the players present, the action gets serious with conflicts and highly charged emotions among the 6 people in the hospital rising to the surface.

The Artemis setting is ideal for a noir — dark and confined with highly volatile people. There is an marked contrast between the shabby furnishings of the hotel and the high tech medical suites.

The critics thought the idea was good but that the cast couldn't pull it off, that the viewer couldn't take them seriously in any real way. I didn't have that problem and bought into the way the actors played their roles.

Jodie Foster is excellent as Nurse who turned to alcohol after the death of her son and lost her license to practice. Besides her drinking is agoraphobic and finds herself subject to panic attacks and unable to leave the Artemis. I also found the way she delivers her lines very appealing. Sort of a "yeah,yeah, I've heard it all before so don't give me that shit" way. She affects an odd shuffling walk that I think adds to her character.

Dave Bautista, whom you might know from Guardians of the Galaxy, is equally good as her orderly, Everest. Besides being the muscle in the hotel he has a sensitive side and gives Nurse relaxation tapes to help her to overcome her anxieties. He and Nurse exchange some good repartee.

I'm not sure what Jeff Goldblum was going for as The Wolf King but can see where you might think he was just dialing it in.

I think all the other characters fulfilled their roles very well.

Sure there were some cheesy moments like the crime lord's son with daddy approval issues, the female assassin making a futile and pointless gesture, and Nurse's final scene. But so what. It is still a fun ride and the action set pieces are nicely done. I wasn't disappointed.

Some examples of dialogue:

Wolf King: You want me to take him out?
Nurse: Nah. He lives in Florida. Life took him out already.

Nurse: Things are going to hell in a hand basket full of blood and shit!

Nurse: Are you okay? You look all the shades of shit.

Everest: Hey, you see that badge? That means I'm a healthcare professional. But that knowledge goes both ways. So if you tell anybody about the Artemis, I will hunt you down and un-heal the shit out of you.

Interview with writer/director Drew Pearce.
Full cast and crew.

Keywords: neo-noir films

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Review: The Marylebone Drop (20180 by Mick Herron

While we wait for the next for the next Jackson Lamb Slough House novel (2019), Mick has treated us with this novella to keep our spirits up. To be honest upfront, this is more of a long short story than a novella so don't block out a lot to time for reading. Still worth it.

The Marlyebone Drop is part of the MI5/Slough House world but doesn't involve Jackson Lamb and his crew. From the description I've read, the events of The Marylbone Drop occur just before the 6th in that series and there is a carryover to it from this book.

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Solomon Dortmund, retired MI5 asset, is in his favorite "café and konditorei" Fischer's, on Marylebone Street in London. Solomon might be retired but he hasn't lost his memory of tradecraft and when a drop occurs in front of him, he notices. This apparent "accidental' exchange of documents is further memorable because it is so old school in this electronic age. He reports this to his handler, John Bachelor, a very low level employee of MI5, recently reduced to part time, currently homeless, and in charge of making sure retired assets get their pensions and are taken care of. Bachelor is a little bitter at his status since he has been shut out of handling an asset he actually identified and recruited, his one significant accomplishment in MI5. Solomon's report to John sets off a chain of events that will have a major impact on several lives.

The Marylebone Drop has the wry humor, cynical view of MI5 management, and fun twists that devoted readers love about his books. However, it seems to me that this book is really a setup for the next novel and from a description I read, at least one character makes the jump to the Jackson Lamb series. I didn't mind because it is a fun little read, like a sorbet between the noirs I seem to be obsessed with lately.

In the UK the title is just The Drop. I don't think the 6th Jackson Lamb book has a title because it is just being referred to as Jackson Lamb Thriller 6.

Keywords: spy fiction, espionage fiction

Friday, November 9, 2018

Review: The Lolita Man (1986) by Bill James

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This is the second of Bill James' Colin Harpur and Desmond Iles series and the first to call it a Harpur and Iles Mystery.   In the first, You'd Better Believe It,  Iles had a minor role but here he is a full-on participant.

Despite being over 30 years old The Lolita Man is still a good solid police procedural. If written today you'd see mobile phones and social media used prominently in the story but ultimately it would still come down to chance and, as Harpur describes it "doorstep detective work".

So far I am finding this a very good police procedural series that continues to hold its own over over the years.

As you probably figured out from the title, young girls are falling victim to a serial killer leaving them raped and dead. The story is told from three viewpoints: third person describing the action, first person diary entries by a fourteen year old girl being groomed by the Lolita Man, and first person from the Lolita Man's viewpoint.

The murders have occurred across police jurisdictions, Harpur's unnamed city and the county, which complicates the search for the killer. This is actually a subplot and I write a bit more on it later.

As the story begins, we learn that Harpur is having an affair with Ruth Avery, widow of a subordinate of Harpur's who died in the first book. to their dismay, it isn't the secret they hoped. I am looking forward to seeing how far they can take this is subsequent books.

The police in both jurisdictions are not having any success in their investigations. In between romantic trysts with Ruth, Harpur does the only thing he can think of, he tours schools and watches —is there anything out of the ordinary, is there a car not picking up any children; is there anyone standing and watching who doesn't seem to belong with the other parents picking up or meeting their child. During one of his prowls around the Ash Tree girls school, he notices a young girl walking home. Later it turn out she is the daughter of acquaintances and he begins to notice that she is acting oddly. She is being groomed by the Lolita Man who in turn has noticed Harpur's interest in the girl. Being that the Lolita Man is seriously disturbed, his assumption is that Harpur wants to or is having "sick sex" with the girl.

Harpur becomes obsessed with the safety of the girl, Jennifer who wants to be called Cheryl-Ann. In watching Cheryl-Ann he discovers something that makes him very uncomfortable: it is all too easy to sexualize young girls and perhaps disturbingly finding himself understanding the fascination of the Lolita Man for young girls. I think here that James is showing us one of the perils of police work, the danger that the pursuer can become like the pursued.

Harpur is already driven to find the killer but when Cheryl-Ann is taken the search takes an even greater toll on him. The police know that they have a limited window in which to find Cheryl-Ann alive and a hostile press and police politics just adds to the pressure.

As I mentioned above, the murders cross jurisdictions and this subplot becomes a savage look at police bureaucracy with Iles at the center. He does not want to share anything more that the minimum with the county. He wants to be the one to claim credit. Outwardly he is all smiles and cooperative but with Harpur it's "don't tell them anything you don't have to". James adds an interesting touch to the rivalry. The county police are dominated by Irish Catholics and the police are The Micks and the county is The Papal State. From the county's perspective, the city police force is The Lodge, being dominated by members of the Freemasons. Iles is afraid that success by the county will put a Mick in the position of chief in the city when the current chief retires.

Where Harpur is a dedicated copper wanting an end to the murders, Iles is a consummate politician, smooth and smiling on the outside but constantly looking for advantage even if it does hinder the investigation. He will even cut out his own men if he thinks they are not on his team.
To make sense of Iles you had to understand that he yearned to be responsible and good, and to be responsible and good, and to sound responsible and good. He had taken pains to learn all the right thoughts and had them word perfect.The trouble was that a kind of ravenous selfishness would now and then slink up on its belly and rip the throat of this intention.
 Iles is smart and has good policing instincts but his hatred for the county police is brutal and affects his approach to the investigation. Harpur, for his part, has to appease Iles while still getting the job done. Here you begin to see the animosity between Harpur and Iles emerging and it will be fun to see how their adversarial relationship and the resulting dynamic tension will develop in subsequent books. It probably doesn't help that Harpur isn't a Mason.

So I'm calling this a good read and I'm happy that I have nearly all the rest of the books waiting for me.

Keywords: police procedural, crime fiction, serial killer, detective fiction, British crime fiction

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Noir: From Book to Screen — Ride the Pink Horse (1946) by Dorothy B. Hughes

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I've started looking at noir books and the noir films made from those books and have one other post on the topic, so far, which can be read here. Since my last post on the topic I've come to realize that I've been looking at this all wrong. You can't determine a film's noirness with a comparison to the book. I don't know what I was thinking.

I'm from the school that holds that film noir isn't a genre. Film noir can encompass pretty much any story line, be taken from any established genre: gangster, police drama, romance (particularly Gothic), etc. Rather, film noir embraces a visual style or mood. There is no common definition or agreement as to what constitutes for film noir and if you want to call a film, noir, you can. For the classic period of film noir — where this film falls — we tend to think in terms of black and white and low key lighting, low angles, and other techniques.

Somewhere on the interwebs I read that noir is like pornography — I can't define it but I know it when I see it. I like that.

What I anow realize is that I shouldn't expect that a noir film will match the noir book from which it derives. There are exceptions of course. I think James M. Caine's noir books translate very well into noir films — The Postman Always Rings TwiceDouble IndemnityMildred Pierce. As for Dorothy B. Hughes' Ride the Pink Horse, forget it. I don't see how it could be translated to film as she wrote it. On the other hand, another of Hughes books, In a Lonely Place, could easily be turned into a noir film as written if you don't mind your leading man seen as a misogynistic psycho serial killer.

We have to accept that noir means something different in print and on film.

Ride the Pink Horse

I first reviewed Ride the Pink Horse in November 2009. That review is at the bottom of this post but I haven't re-read it; I don't want the previous review to affect this review/analysis.

I've only read two books by Hughes —In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse — and both books are examples of fine noir writing. In fact, Ride the Pink Horse is a book I would use to illustrate Otto Penzler's essay on noir: Noir Fiction is About Losers, Not Private Eyes.

Since my leaning is toward print, I am more interested in how Dorothy Hughes wrote noir so expect to find many more words about her book than the film.

SPOILERS AHEAD (and very long)

Jump to:
But What is Ride the Pink Horse really about?
How does the pink horse fit into the story?
Mac and No Escape
Ride the Pink Horse, the film
2009 review of Ride the Pink Horse

Plot Synopsis: A Chicago hood known only as Sailor arrives by bus in a New Mexico town that isn't expressly named. Let's call the town Santa Fe since , like Santa Fe, it has a hotel named La Fonda as well as some other similar attributes. Santa Fe's annual fiesta is about to start. Sailor is looking for former senator Willis  "Sen" Douglas for whom he was, until recently, employed as confidential secretary. Sen is thoroughly, bone deep, corrupt. Sailor thinks Sen owes him more money from the shooting death of the senator's in a staged home robbery. Sailor was involved but wasn't aware that the target was the senator's wife. The senator told him it was someone else who Sailor could justify killing for self protection. Sailor didn't fire the killing shot, the senator did but the senator doesn't know that Sailors knows that. Sailor intents to use that information to blackmail the senator.

Preceding Sailor to Santa Fe, is "Mac" McIntyre, chief of Chicago homicide. Mac suspects that Sen organized his wife's death for a sizable insurance payout. Mac doesn't exactly suspect Sailor's involvement but is pretty sure Sailor knows the whole story. So: Sailor wants hush money so he can start over in Mexico; Sen doesn't want to pay Sailor anything and wants both him and Mac gone so he can pursue wealthy Iris Towers; and Mac wants the senator for the murder and for Sailor to tell what he knows. There is back story with Sen, Sailor, and Mac. The senator picked Sailor, then a poor boy on the streets, out of a poolroom to be his protege. He gave him some college and taught him how to act in society. Sailor isn't dumb, by any means. Sailor knew Mac from when he was a beat cop trying to steer Sailor onto the right track in life. Also, the senator tried to buy Mac and bring him into his organization but Mac is too honest and honorable.

We have murder, blackmail, corruption, and an honest cop in a town in New Mexico during a fiesta with so many people packing the streets it is claustrophobic. These are the makings of a pretty good crime story, right?

But what is Ride the Pink Horse really about?

Anything bold within quotes is my emphasis.

Crime is the reason but the heart of the story is Sailor's existential crises and his near total loss of identity.

When he gets off the bus, Sailor has a big city hoodlum's arrogant assumption that he is the wolf among the "sheep" in a hick town. Sailor is an island among the throng of yokels, hayseeds, spics, and greasers. He evaluates people as to whether they have disrespected him and should be beaten: the guy unloading luggage from the bus is an "officious bastard" who is only saved because doesn't want to draw attention to himself so early.

But there is a chink in Sailor's facade and we get a foreshadowing his vulnerability when he sees his first Indians:
They looked like something out of a circus but he didn't snicker. Something about them kept him from wanting to snicker. They were the first Indians he'd ever seen.
Their polished black eyes are a recurring image.

The first hitch in his plan occurs when he learns that, because of Fiesta, there are no rooms to be had in town. Confident that he will find a place he strides across the square and encounters Indians with their goods spread out for sale on blankets. Hah! Fiesta is just a cheap carnival with the Indian's hawking their junk. But then He has another unsettling moment:
And then he realized. They weren't hawking the stuff; they were as silent as if they didn't know he was standing there. But they knew. Their black eyes, even the kid's black eyes slanted like Chinks, were watching him. Not with curiosity, not even with particular interest. They looked at him as if he were some kind of specimen they hadn't seen before. There was no expression on their brown faces. It gave him a queer feeling, as if he, not the Indians, were something strange.
This leaves Sailor feeling helpless anger.

Later encounter further erodes Sailor's perception of his place in the universe. The square is a seething mass of people but ...
The Indians alone were not part of the maelstrom. They sat against the wall, their bright calicos billowing about them, their black eyes inscrutable ironic. They sat in silence, not speaking unless spoken to, not offering their goods, selling if asked, their brown hands  exchanging goods for money with amusement if not scorn. Because they knew this to be make-believe; because in time these strange people did not exist
That's it, the Indians are part of the land and will remain but everyone else is transient.

We understand what's happening to Sailor when he looks into the eyes of a 14 year old Indian girl, Pila, and has a flashback to an incident from his youth. His class has been taken to the Art Institute in Chicago and young Sailor is transfixed by a granite head of a woman:
He had known fear, real fear, the first time in his life as he'd stood there. He'd thought he'd known it before. Fear of the old man's drunken strap, fear of the old woman's whining complaints, fear of the cop and the clap and the red eyes of the rats that came out of the wall at night. Fear of death and hell. Those were real fears but nothing like the naked fear that paralyzed him before the tone woman. Because with other things he was himself, he could fight back, he had identity. Before her his identity was lost, lost in the formless terrors older than time.
... He knew for the first time that the stone woman was Indian. He knew Pila was Indian. 
...And without warning his eyes came against the eyes of Pila. He had the same shock he'd had last night when he first looked upon her. The same remembrance of terror, of a head of stone which reduced him to nonexistence. His first reaction was to turn away, not to recognize her. But he could not. She was there. She existed. He was the one without existence, the dream figure wandering in this dreadful nightmare.
I don't want to flog symbolism but I'd say that, for Sailor, when he looks into the black eyes of the Indians, he sees the Void and has to recognize his own insignificance.

One last thought. Sailor is overtly racist but the two people who comfort are both brown. He's still a racist are two characters he seems to genuinely come to care for.

How does the pink horse fit into the story?

 As Sailor wanders through town he encounters a merry-go-round operated by a fat, smelly, part Indian, part Spanish man named Don Jose Patricio Santiago Morales y Cortez to whom Sailor assigns the derogatory nickname Pancho Villa. One of the animals on Pancho's merry-go-round is a pink horse. Sailor finds himself wanting to be nice to the young Indian girl, Pila and buys her a ride on the merry-go-round and tells her to sit on the pink horse. This is the first ride Pila has ever had; Indians don't ride the merry-go-round. He also buys her a pink pop. But the pink horse has nostalgic symbolism for Sailor, it takes him back.
But the pink horse was the red bike in Field's, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of music and the sweet, cold soda pop. 
[Sailor] ...didn't know why giving the her a ride had been important. Whether he'd wanted to play the big shot. Whether it was the kid and the bright new bike, the bum with his nose pressed against the window looking at the clean silver blonde beyond reach. Whether it was placating an old and nameless terror. Pila wasn't stone now; she was a little girl ...
Pancho takes a liking to Sailor because he was nice to an Indian girl without expecting sex in return. He decides that Sailor is his amigo. For probably the first time in his life Sailor encounters someone totally at peace with himself and his place in the universe, selfless, what's his is yours. When Sailor can't find a room, Pancho gives him is best serape and invites him to sleep beside him on the ground beside the merry-go-round. Pancho is a man of the land, part of the land, and Sailor is a stranger who needs to be taken care of.

Pancho and Pila are actually a chance of redemption for Sailor. Before Pila leaves to return to her pueblo, Sailor earnestly tries to tell her not to follow her cousin's example and return to the city to work. If she does she will be lost, just as Sailor was lost. It's really a sad look at Sailor who does still retain a spark of decency.

Mac and No Escape

Along with Paucho and Pila, Mac represents another chance to redeem himself. Mac is almost a father figure for Sailor. Mac grew up in the same neighborhood as Sailor but chose the straight path. As a beat cop, Mac did his best to show Sailor that he could climb out of despair, poverty, and physical abuse without losing his soul. Now, in Santa Fe, Mac is giving him another chance to go straight. He and Sailor spend a lot of time talking but Mac doesn't come across hard, he is genuinely concerned about Sailor. If Sailor will just tell him what happened with the Senator's wife he can help him.

Sailor teeters on the edge of accepting Mac's offer but, in the end, his desire for his money drives his actions. He tells himself that once he gets his money he will confess all to Mac but is he just fooling himself? Mac warns him not to confront the Senator because he is likely to lose control. Sailor doesn't heed his words and ends up killing the Senator when he tries to pull a gun on him. Mac has seen it go down and reassures Sailor it was self defense and gently tries to steer Sailor in returning to Chicago with him. He might do a few years in prison but Mac will be there when he gets out and help him.  Mac might have been a good man but he was a copper and Sailor's hoodlum instincts kick in. As Mac moves toward him, sailor shoots him and his life crashes in that moment.
Sailor was weeping as he ran, weeping for Mac. No sound stirred behind him, there was no sound in the night but his running step, his tears. somewhere in the silence Pancho prayed for him,not knowing he prayed for the damned. Or Pancho slept with tequila sweet on his lips. Pancho who would have helped him. Who could not help him now. It was too late. 
He ran on, into open country this quickly; plunging into the wastes fo endless land and sky, stretching forever, for eternity, to the far-off farrier of the mountains. The night was cold, colder than before. All he had to do was keep moving, keep moving on and on until he reached the mountains. On the other side was freedom. Escape from this dread dream.
But we know there is no escape for Sailor, he is running into a hell of his own making.

Sailor has a tommy gun in his suitcase and if you subscribe to Checkov's Gun you might be expecting some serious gun play. Nope. Ride the Pink Horse is almost entirely Sailor's inevitable slide toward the Void, a psychological exploration, an existential crises.

I can write much more about this book but I think you get the point. In fact, you might be thinking that I have made my point then bludgeoned you with it.

Let's now take a look at what the film does with Hughes' exquisite writing. Don't worry, if you've made it this far, I won't give the film the same lengthy treatment as I did for the book.

Ride the Pink Horse, The Film (1947)

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Directed by and Starring Robert Montgomery.

Full cast and crew on IMDB.

A few notes on book vs film characters
Sailor = Lucky Gagin, veteran of the Pacific campaign.
McIntyre = Retz, now an FBI or some sort of government agent
Sen = Hugo, now a crime lord
Iris Towers = Marjorie, here elevated from background rich girl to femme fatale
Pila = Pila, a young Indian girl in book and film
Pancho = Pancho, operator of the central symbol, the carousel, in both book and film

The film version of Ride the Pink Horse is a fine example of classic film noir and not known as well as other films of the period. If you enjoy film noir you really need to see it. It resembles the book only in the basics. The symbolism of the pink horse in the title is lost and viewers who haven't read the book might wonder why they picked it out for the title. A word of advice for readers of noir fiction: Pretend the book doesn't exist and roll with the film as a piece of classic film noir. You'll enjoy it more. I re-watched the film immediately after re-reading the book and I suffered at first by comparing the two.

Rather than going into detail about the noir elements of this film, let me point you to an excellent blog post, Ride the Pink Horse on the blog Film Noir Board by Eric Somer. Eric does a very nice analysis and points out that  "For a noir film released in the late '40s, RIDE THE PINK HORSE communicates the noir visual style in a more subtle way than was typical of the time".

The film strips out all the existential elements and psychological angst of Sailor, who is named Lucky Gagin in the film. Without Sailor's crippling insecurities and inner darkness, Mongomery's Gagin becomes your hardboiled, laconic, sarcastic, wisecracking noira nti-hero. Montgomery carries this off very well and I loved watching his movements, body language, and verbal sparrings. I put Montgomery's Gagin high on my list of noir anti-heroes.

I know they needed to give Pila an expanded role to carry the story along, but she's is so not the Pila of the book that it pulled me out of the film a little at first. But I got over it. This Pila take a very protective interest in Gagin from first meeting and is seen as anxious and fretting over Gagin. But Wanda Hendrix plays the new role very well and by the end of the film I could accept her character.

Pancho, on the other hand, is always great and much as I imagined him in the book. I would like to sit with him in his lean-to by the carousel, taking slugs from a bottle of rot gut tequila. He's a good-hearted man who will do anything for a friend. And funny. Pancho represents all that is good in humanity, a simple man of the earth for whom loyalty and generosity are paramount. His carousel is named Tio Vivo, Uncle Lively and pretty obviously represents the path of the good and righteous.

The government man, Retz, is very different from the book's McIntyre. Here he is an older, folksy, aw shucks guy but with a core of steel. He would be easy to underestimate but you will suffer if you do. Watching the face and mannerisms of Art Smith's Agent Retz really contributes to an enjoyment of the film.

Taken together, Pila, Pancho, and Retz are agents for the good inside Gagin. Will they be able to steer him to the right path?

Frank Hugo is a war profiteering gangster. In an interesting touch, the writers make him partially deaf and he uses a cumbersome hearing amplifier attached to his belt. Watching him talk on the phone adds a different dimension. to the character: he is a ruthless gangster but with a vulnerability. He is a perfect noir villain.

We tend to associate noir with the big city but Ride the Pink Horse was made in Santa Fe New Mexico. Hughes herself had a connection with New Mexico and loved the location. I have a slight familiarity with the area myself and enjoyed how sunny New Mexico can be given a dark, noir cast.

The film opens with Gagin arriving by bus in San Pablo. A dusty town in New Mexico is not a setting you associate with film noir but it just goes to show you that film noir is adaptable. Robert Montgomery's Gagin comes across as the quintessential sneering tough guy as he leaves the bus —not the first, not the last off, taking in his surroundings subtly. In a nice one-shot he enters the bus station, transfers a gun from his briefcase to his pocket, and places a check in a locker. He sticks the locker key behind a wall map with a piece of gum.

Outside he asks directions to the La Fonda Hotel. He has to stop at a carousel for further guidance and here he runs into Pila who volunteers to take him to the hotel. Pila hands him a small doll to ward off bad luck. This will be a jarring moment for fans of the book — this Pila is NOT the Pila that Hughes wrote about. This Pila is older, (~19) not a black-eyed Indian (she reminds me more of Natalie Wood in The Searchers), more expressive, and seems anxious and agitated upon meeting Gagin. We learn why later.

At the La Fonda he determines the room number of his target, Frank Hugo. At this point we don't know what kind of man Gagin is. He acts tough but what is he after. Frank isn't in the room but after pushing his way in he roughs up Frank's private secretary with the usual tough guy action and aggressive sarcastic remarks. An attractive woman named Marjorie comes in. She seems to come on to Gagin. He tells her to tell Hugo that Shorty's pal stopped by.

In the lobby, he is stopped by Retz, an FBI agent who has been tailing Hugo for some time. He warns Gagin against taking on Hugo. Unlike Mac in the book, Gagin doesn't know Retz but Retz saw Gagin in Washington DC at Shorty Thompson's inquest. Retz's assumption is that Gagin is in town to knock off Hugo in revenge for the death of his friend.

Gagin is directed to the Tres Violetas cantina where he might be able to find a room. Pila is hanging around out front because her friends are inside. When he enters the cantina, it is full of locals and goes silent and hostile. Things get really tense when he tries to pay for a drink with a large bill and the bartender can't make change. The patrons speak Spanish with no translation which I think is a nice touch. You get the idea from the context. Things are tense until Pancho steps in and defuses the situation. Pancho decides that Gagin is his amigo and the two proceed to get drunk. Pancho says he will take Gagin to a place where he can sleep. Outside Pila is still around. She seems to be worried about Gagin.

It turns out that Pancho's "room" is actually a bed in a lean to next to the carousel of which Pancho turns out to be the owner. Pancho talks a little about his philosophy on life.
Some peoples happy when they got money. Me, I'm only happy when I got nothing. Nothing...and a friend. So long as Pancho go somebody he can tell "Amigo, I love you." That's enough.
The film Pancho is very much like the book Pancho. You can't help but like him.

Pila shows up again and Gagin shows his soft side by waking Pancho and getting him to give Pila a ride on the carousel pink horse. In the movie we don't know why the pink horse is significant enough to be the title. Probably because it isn't in the context of the film.

The next day Gagin meets up with Hugo in his hotel room and we find out more about Shorty. Apparently Shorty was trying to blackmail Hugo with a cancelled check that would prove Hugo illegally profited during the war. Gagin says he wants $30, 000 and will give the check to Hugo. Hugo tells him to meet him at the Tip Top Club and he'll have the money.

In the lobby, Retz is talking to Pila who tells him that she had a vision of Gagin dead and she is trying to protect him.

Gagin takes Pila into the restaurant for lunch and they are interrupted by Marjorie. She says she wants to get away from Frank and wants to go partners with Gagin for more money. She's coming across as a bit of a femme fatale. Gagin says he isn't interested.

That night we see scenes from the parade, with a large representation of the god of evil, Zozobra being pulled in a wagon. Zozobra will be later burned to banish evil and bring good luck. In a nifty bit of camera work, the camera fades from a close up of Zozobra to the face of Frank Hugo. If we had any doubts before, Hugo is evil.

Marjorie lures Gagin outside where he is attacked. So she is sort of a femme fatale. Badly wounded by a knife. Gagin staggers into the bushes where he is found by Pila. She wraps his wound and takes him to Pancho. They decide that the best course is for Gagin to go to Pila's home to recover and they go to the cantina to wait until time for the bus. In a nice touch, the people in the cantina accept Gagin as a friend of Pancho  and help him. Gagin is in bad shape and delirious. When Marjorie and a henchman come into the cantina, Pila is able to knock him out with a liquor bottle and hurry Gagin to the bus. But when Pila leaves Gagin in the bus to go get tickets, he staggers back to the hotel to confront Hugo.

This is obviously a dumb move but Gagin is completely out of his mind. Pila catches up with Gagin and they both end up in Hugo's room with a number of Hugo's henchmen. Gagin and Pila get slapped around to get them to produce the check but both hold out.: Gagin because he doesn't remember and Pila because she is brave and loyal. Then Retz busts in and holds  Hugo and his henchmen at gun point. Hugo gives a passionate speech about why Gagin should take the money, that he is a fool if he doesn't. Gagin had previously given the check to Pila for safekeeping and asks her for it. Frank thinks he's won but then Gagin hands the check to Retz. The good side of Getz has won out.

Some time later, Gagin is patched up and about to leave town. He and Retz go to find Pancho and Pila to say goodbye. We get the impression that everyone thinks that Gagin will stay but he and Retz still head to the bus. Pila is left looking stoic as he walks away. Retz still seems to think Gagin will stay and goes along to see if he really gets on the bus.

Pila is left standing and the children gather around her. She begins to dramatically recount the events on the past few days and she seems to bask in the attention. Not very book Pila like.

The End (or is it? Personally I think Gagin will be back)

1/11/2009 Review

I carried a few thoughts forward to the new review but I obviously didn't put as much thought into the structure of Hugh's book back then.

Canongate Books Ltd, 2002, ISBN 1-84195-277-X, 248 pages. Ride the Pink Horse was originally published in 1946.

A Chicago hood named Sailor arrives in a nameless New Mexico town looking for his former boss, Senator Douglass. Sailor had been hired by Douglass to kill his wife but Sailor knows it was the Senator who actually did the deed. Sailor wants to be paid what is due him for his silence. Also in town is McIntyre, a homicide detective from Chicago who is watching the Senator. McIntyre has known Sailor since he was a patrolman and has always hoped that Sailor could overcome his upbringing.

Unfortunately for Sailor, it is Fiesta time and there are no rooms at any price. Much of the book is Sailor interacting with townspeople and Fiesta attendees as he tries to find a place to stay and prepare himself to confront the Senator.

He forms an odd relationship with the owner of a hand-cranked merry-go-round. The man is an Indian named Don Jose Patricio Santiago Morales y Cortez but Sailor calls hum Pancho. Pancho is "fat and shapeless and dirty, but his brown face was curiously peaceful." When Sailor befriends a fourteen year old Indian girl, Pila, paying for her to ride the merry-go-round on the pink horse, Pancho decides that Sailor is his friend; Sailor didn't try to use ride to have sex with the girl. In his own harsh and bigoted way, Sailor has empathy for the girl and her low status with everyone else.

This isn't a book with action and gun-play. What we see is someone who finds himself in an alien culture and his big city biases and prejudices challenged. Sailor could be more than a hood but seems unable to break away from a path to destruction. We see a lot of inner conflict working at Sailor and at a time of desperation the one person he turns to for help is Pancho, someone not of his world.

For me, the pleasure in reading this book was not the plot but the writing. The descriptions of the town, Fiesta, the people, the out-of-his-element flounderings of Sailor are wonderful to read. Hughes was educated and worked in New Mexico and she writes movingly about the relationship of the Indians to the land and how they will endure.

This is another book I learned of from Megan Abbott's anthology, A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir From Busted Flush Press.

Keywords: film noir, crime fiction, New Mexico.
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