As the Mexican bordertown of San Pablo prepares for its annual fiesta, a stranger arrives. He is Gagin (Robert Montgomery), a mysterious, laconic, tough-talking gringo in search of the equally enigmatic Frank Hugo (Fred Clark). It is not clear at first whether Gagin is looking for revenge or out to blackmail Hugo but his arrival instantly arouses the interest of FBI agent Retz (Art Smith) who is also searching for the elusive mobster. Retz shrewdly decides to hang back and let Gagin lead him to his man but others, including duplicitous femme fatale Marjorie Lundeen (Andrea King), sense a threat. Meanwhile, Gagin strikes up a friendship with Pancho (Thomas Gomez), the affable proprietor of a small carousel, along with a more quixotic relationship with Pilar (Wanda Hendrix), a beguiling, mystical teenager who claims she had a premonition of his death.
Turning evasiveness into an art form, this pleasingly offbeat, atmospheric film noir thriller takes its own cool time to establish exactly what is going on. Adapted from a novel by Dorothy Hughes under the aegis of celebrated screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, Ride the Pink Horse ranks among a handful of directorial outings for actor Robert Montgomery of which the best known remains his gimmicky first-person Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake (1947). Despite straining a little to convince as a hard-boiled gangster, Montgomery proves a compelling screen presence as the brusque, embittered Gagin. As a director he exhibits a real command of the medium staging sinuous tracking shots and long, near-wordless sequences to convey a unique otherworldly mood. He also stages a vividly upsetting sequence in which two thugs beat up the kindly Pancho in front of a whirling carousel of children. However, Montgomery's background as an actor-turned-director is all too evident from his tendency to dwell on lengthy character driven scenes at the expense of propelling the plot. Quite often the story takes a back seat to those moments where characters like Pancho prove only too happy to share their personal philosophies about life.
Nevertheless, the inclusion of quasi-psychic Pilar with her confounding, enigmatic statements injects a fresh element into the well worn noir formula. The film yokes some quirky comedy from the interplay between streetwise gangster and the gabby yet guileless Mexican girl. Dreams prove a major theme here as the film draws a link between Pilar's premonitions and Gagin's thwarted ambition. Like many a noir Ride the Pink Horse taps into the post-war angst shared by a generation of psychologically scarred veterans who wanted their share of the American Dream and were prepared to do whatever it took to get it. Early on Hugo pegs Gagin as a “disillusioned patriot”, someone that put in the hard work but now feels betrayed. It takes its time getting there but the plot boils down to a battle for Gagin's soul with both smart-alecky FBI agent Retz and the earthly angel Pilar on the side of the white hats.
As part of a wave of south-of-the-border noir adventures including The Big Steal (1949), His Kind of Woman (1951) and Border Incident (1949) culminating in Orson Welles' seminal Touch of Evil (1958), the film serves up a portrait of Mexico as land of danger, intrigue and strange superstition that teeters on the edge of xenophobia yet the script draws the Mexican characters as far warmer and humane than the American visitors. Thomas Gomez was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the good-hearted Pancho while Wanda Hendrix brings a lot of charm to her role as Pilar. Gradually the film gathers momentum towards a suspenseful and cathartic finale. Montgomery and Hendrix recreated their roles in a radio adaptation while Don Siegel later remade this as the TV movie The Hanged Man (1964) starring Robert Culp.