*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you are like me, you have to see "Ride the Pink Horse" (1947) several times in order to appreciate its merits and the extent of its perfection and integrity. Seeing it only once, you may be left wondering where the action was, or why it seemed talky, or why it has the name it has, or just what it's all about. Seeing it several times, you may instead be hooked by its characters and depth.
This is a story where the greatest violence is not shown, and that is the knife fight between Montgomery and two assailants sent by Fred Clark. This leaves Montgomery seriously wounded, but even worse is that his mind is sent back to his days fighting the war in Guinea and he becomes confused about his situation. Guinea has been on his mind since he arrived in San Pedro, his aim being to blackmail war profiteer Fred Clark ("Frank Hugo"), and we have come to know his disillusioned attitude toward that war, patriotism and the role played by such as Clark.
At the 73-minute mark, two thugs of Clark looking for Montgomery beat up the tight-lipped Thomas Gomez. This is partially shown in blips as the carousel that houses the pink horse revolves and the scared children catch glimpses of him being struck. Wanda Hendrix at that point is in one revolving chariot and hiding Montgomery under a shawl. Gomez doesn't give up Montgomery's location, and the thugs contemptuously take him for simply a "fat slob". This in a way mirrors Montgomery's own superior attitude among the Mexicans, but it's more of a city-country kind of divide, one of sophistication, not malevolence.
The weak and poor Hendrix and Gomez protect the seemingly strong and well-off Montgomery, who has boasted that his gun is the "best charm in the world", better than the one given to him by Hendrix to protect him against the death that she sensed in him the first instant she saw him after he arrived. Montgomery throws his money around liberally but they cannot buy him a roof over his head for the night. It's Gomez who offers him shelter in a humble semi-tent. Montgomery's money almost cannot buy him a drink when the bill he offers is too large and the bartender hasn't enough change. By the end of the movie, Montgomery is virtually helpless and confused, walking straight into the arms of Clark and his thugs. But he's had the presence of mind to transfer to Hendrix the vital cancelled check showing Clark's guilt.
The U.S. government man on the scene who is after Clark, a friendly Art Smith, represents the long arm of the law, still operative. He represents a moral order that's survived the war's disillusions. Gomez represents the survival of basic human values that come with being poor. Hendrix represents the survival of rural cultures and ancient beliefs in spirits. (Montgomery playfully calls her Sitting Bull). Clark represents the strength of greed gone to an extreme and threatening to control government itself. (Montgomery asks Smith: "Doesn't the government work for Hugo?") Montgomery has a negative attitude toward women ("They like to get their hooks in you"). And: "Diamonds...and a dead fish where her heart ought to be". For him, Hendrix is a new experience that leaves him tongue-tied. He cannot grasp her instinctive protectiveness toward him. Her character is at an age when she is reaching out toward a larger world and finding her place in the one that she's in. She takes in her experience with him and absorbs it.
At the end of the movie, Hendrix is seen telling her friends the story of her meeting with Montgomery and of her own heroism: "He wonder 'Which way to the La Fonda Hotel?' I say 'I will show you the hotel.' The next day he gave me money and I went to fix my hair another way, a way he liked to see better. But they were bad. And then there was a man who came to the canteen but I hit him in the head with a bottle. Just like that!"
This is one of those essential film noirs upon which the deserved high reputation of the noir canon rests.