When Lucky Gagin, a luckless veteran played by Robert Montgomery, steps from the interstate bus, he is greeted by a flashing neon sign, “Buenos Dias. Howdy.” The border town, known generically as San Pablo, is an indistinct zone of amalgamated cultures—Mexican Americans, gringos, and local Pueblo Indians—though it bears resemblance to novelist Dorothy B. Hughes’s Santa Fe. A big city tough, Gagin is never at ease on streets filled with peculiar festivities, off-putting strangers, and cantinas like the grimy La Violeta. He has come to avenge the death of his pal Shorty at the hands of Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), a crooked war profiteer. With visitors to the annual fiesta occupying all of San Pablo’s hotel rooms, Gagin is adrift until he meets gregariously soused Pancho (Thomas Gomez), fondly called “Pancho Villa,” a carousel operator who invites him to flop in his makeshift home. Director Montgomery creates a claustrophobic space where danger resides in the familiar, the exotic “other” becomes an unexpected ally, and, like the karmic carousel in this forgotten noir, what goes around comes around. —Steve Seid
Actor/director/producer. In his early career, from the late ‘20s to the early ’40s, Montgomery was an amiable light comedian and dramatic actor, appearing in almost 40 sound films before 1935. He starred opposite Norma Shearer in Private Lives (1931), Joan Crawford in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937), Carole Lombard in Hitchcock’s comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) and was nominated for an Academy Award for Night Must Fall (1937) and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). His career took a more serious turn after his stint in World War II. For his first film after returning, They Were Expendable (1945), Montgomery not only starred but assisted John Ford in the direction. He also starred in and directed the Raymond Chandler detective thriller Lady in the Lake, noted for its unique first-person point of view. His attentions then turned to politics and television. Montgomery gave “friendly” testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and by the mid ’50s was a consultant to Republican… read more
If nothing else, this is the coolest name for a film noir. But beyond that, this is a hard-boiled, at times ruthless, noir that deserves to be more widely seen. Pulling off outstanding efforts as both actor and director, this is Robert Montgomery’s shining moment, in my opinion.