Robert Montgomery rides into town and trouble soon follows.
We'd seen the movie adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes' novel Ride the Pink Horse before, more than once, but decided to watch it again because its premiere date was today in 1947. It differs from the book, of course—it's more streamlined, the real life town of Santa Fe becomes fictional San Pablo, the villains are more proactive, the heartless anti-hero Sailor becomes the not-so-bad Lucky Gagin, and the Mexican girl Pila is an adult instead of a fourteen-year-old. All these changes work fine. The most striking addition is the movie's use of Spanish dialogue, five or six lines worth, untranslated and unsubtitled. It adds authenticity, plus a touch of bonus material for Spanish speakers. Robert Montgomery directs and stars, handling the dual chores solidly. In the end Ride the Pink Horse is a good film noir that has increased in stature over the years. It's always been one of our favorites, but we admit that after seeing so many rote entries it's the quirky ones that tend to stand out. We wouldn't recommend this to novices as their first noir, but if you've seen many and are looking for something that surprises, Ride the Pink Horse will do the job. You can learn more about the movie by reading our detailed write-up about the novel here.
Hallucinatory southwestern noir takes readers to a land of saints and sinners.
It's said that a good book teaches you how to read it. The author instructs while building the story. Dorothy B. Hughes' 1946 crime novel Ride the Pink Horse, which was the source material for the 1947 film noir starring Robert Montgomery, falls into that category. In the story a man wanders around the southwestern U.S. town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, searching for someone he calls the Sen, which is short for the Senator. We suspect the shortening of his title is designed to make it a heterograph with “sin,” because this Illinois senator-turned-crime boss rather sinfully hired out the murder of his wife then shorted the murderer part of his fee. That's why the main character, named Sailor, is adrift in this town. He's followed the Sen there from Chicago to get his money. He plans to find him, confront him, collect payment, then scurry away to Mexico.
But this comes out in trickles. Initially Sailor merely criss-crosses the town, unable to find a hotel room because it's fiesta weekend, with crowds everywhere and processions filling the streets. He sleeps under the canopy of a merry-go-round which features a pink horse. As he keeps going in circles around town more characters emerge—the cop who's trying to solve murder of the senator's wife, the carousel owner who appeals to Sailor's sense of honor, the girl who recalls an innocence he can barely remember, and the beautiful Iris Towers, the focus of his wishes for a better life.
Hughes loves symbolic names: there's the Sen, as we already mentioned; there's Iris Towers, dressed in ivory colors and pale of skin; and there's the girl Pila, whose name is the Spanish word for a laundry trough, a place of cleansing. The book is composed of encounters rather than events, hallucinatory meanderings punctuated by tense verbal standoffs. Each tête-à-tête clarifies matters a bit more for the reader. Did Sailor really kill the Sen's wife? Did he ever intend to? Was she ever to be the actual target? Were others involved?
When Sailor goes from seeing the town's Mexican and Native American inhabitants as something other than sub-human, maybe, we think, he isn't irredeemable. But even if he grows in some ways his hatred continues to drive him. He thinks the Sen is vermin. He wonders how such an abomination can even walk upon the Earth. When he follows the Sen into the cathedral this thought passes through his mind: He didn’t know why the dim perfumed cathedral didn’t belch the Sen out of its holy portals.
Hughes is a good writer, a unique stylist, and she gives Ride the Pink Horse the disorienting feeling of taking place in purgatory. It's a fever dream, an acid trip across a constantly shifting landscape, literary rather than pulp in approach, as much Faulkner as it is Chandler, with nothing quite solid or real apart from Sailor's hatred, which is so intense it seems as if it will consume him and leave nothing behind but a cinder. Sailor's racism is appalling, but he's not supposed to be a good man. This town filled with people that frighten and confuse him could be his salvation or his doom. He's the one who has to decide whether to step back from the precipice. Every wise character sees that he's headed for destruction. But the future isn't set. He has a chance for redemption—small, but real. Top marks for this one.
Caught between the dark and a hard place.
This 1949 Pocket Books paperback of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes is a rarity. The novel is abundantly available today, but the first edition paperback you see above is hard to find. The story was made into a 1950 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, but the final product bears little resemblance to the novel. Actually, the movie is a lesson in how source material can be completely cannibalized yet still made into a superior product. In a Lonely Place the movie, after all, is considered one of the best of the mid-century noirs. We said the same about it last year. But unlike the film, Hughes' novel leaves no doubt that main character Dixon Steele is a murderer. In fact, it's the central plot device—he kills a wealthy man and assumes his identity. The novel is said to be an inspiration for Patricia Highsmith's famed murderous grifter Tom Ripley. The nice art on In a Lonely Place was painted by Frank McCarthy, a prolific illustrator of paperbacks and magazine covers who toward the end of his career moved into fine art with frontier and western themes. We haven't featured him before but he'll doubtless pop up again.
Vintage paperback violence gets up close and personal.
We have another collection today as we prepare to jet away on vacation with the girls. Since the place we’re going is known for rowdy British tourists (what place isn’t known for that?), we thought we’d feature some of the numerous paperback covers featuring fights. You’ll notice, as with our last collection, the preponderance of French books. Parisian publishers loved this theme. The difference, as opposed to American publishers, is that you almost never saw women actually being hit on French covers (we’d almost go so far as to say it never happened, but we’ve obviously not seen every French paperback ever printed). The French preferred man-on-man violence, and when women were involved, they were either acquitting themselves nicely, or often winning via the use of sharp or blunt instruments.
Violence against women is and has always been a serious problem in the real world, but we’re just looking at products of the imagination here, which themselves represent products of the imagination known as fiction. Content-wise, mid-century authors generally frowned upon violence toward women even if they wrote it into their novels. Conversely, the cover art, stripped of literary context, seemed to glorify it. Since cover art is designed to entice readers, there’s a valid discussion here about why anti-woman violence was deemed attractive on mid-century paperback fronts, and whether its disappearance indicates an understanding of its wrongness, or merely a cynical realization that it can no longer be shown without consequences. We have another fighting cover here, and you may also want to check out our western brawls here.
Never trust a man in expensive clothes.
The Pulp Intl. girlfriends want more depictions of men on the site. Can we oblige them? Probably not. Vintage paperback art features women about ninety percent of the time, and they’re often scantily clothed. Men, on the occasions they appear, are not only typically dressed head to toe, but are often sartorially splendid. There are exceptions—beach-themed covers, bedroom depictions, gay fiction, and romances often feature stripped down dudes. We’ll assemble some collections of all those going forward, but today the best we can offer is an assortment of g’d up alpha males, with art by Victor Kalin, Robert McGinnis, and others. Enjoy.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Above is the cover of Rufus King's 1945 mystery The Deadly Dove, which isn't a particularly notable book, except that it demonstrates one of the time-honored motifs in pulp cover art—the woman fighting for her life. We've cobbled together a small collection of such covers, with art by Robert Hilbert, Robert Stanley, and others. We're curious, but unfortunately have no way of knowing, how readers reacted to these depictions when they first hit newsstands. There are probably some examinations of that question out there somewhere, but not in a place where we can find them. To our contemporary eyes, though, some of these images seem brutal to the extent that if someone actually saw us holding one in a store, we'd be like, "Oh this? Not mine. No, no, no. Found this uh, on the floor and was just, er, putting it back on the shelf. No, I was actually buying this copy of Genital Warts and U." Okay, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement. You get the point, though. But violent or not, there's no denying the artistry on display on these covers. Thanks to various Flickr groups for some of these, by the way. In other news, that long delayed internet installation is so close we can almost taste it. How much you wanna bet it all fails spectacularly?
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1938—Archbishop Denounces Dance Music
The Archbishop of Dubuque, Francis J. L. Beckman, makes headlines in the U.S. when he attacks swing music as a degenerated musical system destined to gnaw away at the moral fiber of young people. His denouncement follows on the heels of the music being banned in Germany due to its African and Jewish origins.
1993—Vincent Price Dies
American actor Vincent Price, who had achieved the height of his fame acting in low budget horror movies, and became famous again as the macabre voice in Michael Jackson's song "Thriller," dies at age 82 of complications from emphysema and Pariknson's disease.
1929—Stock Market Crashes
Black Thursday, a catastrophic crash on the New York Stock Exchange, occurs when the value of stocks suddenly declines and continues to decline for a month. The event leads to a subsequent crash in world stock prices and precipitates the Great Depression. This after famous economist Irving Fisher had declared that stock prices had reached a permanently high plateau.
1935—Four Gangsters Gunned Down in New Jersey
In Newark, New Jersey, the organized crime figures Dutch Schultz, Abe Landau, Otto Berman, and Bernard "Lulu" Rosencrantz are fatally shot at the Palace Chophouse restaurant. Schultz, who was the target, lingers in the hospital for about a day before dying
. The killings are committed by a group of professional gunmen known as Murder, Inc., and the event becomes known as the Chophouse Massacre.
1950—Al Jolson Dies
Vaudeville and screen performer Al Jolson dies of a heart attack in San Francisco after a trip to Korea to entertain troops causes lung problems. Jolson is best known for his film The Jazz Singer, and for his performances in blackface make-up, which were not considered offensive at the time, but have now come to be seen as a form of racial bigotry.
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