Rancho Notorious

Hate, murder and revenge…

Those three powerful words succinctly describe what Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952) is all about. It’s a curiosity – a western that seems to take pride in overturning genre conventions and defying viewer expectations. It’s also a highly stylized melodrama, bordering on parody in fact, a kind of baroque noir picture dressed up in western garb. Over the years I’ve seen the movie come in for some criticism, largely based on the atmosphere of artificiality or cheapness. Still, that’s a big part of what attracts me to it; the anti-realism of the film gives it a theatrical feel, and heightens the sense of watching a morality piece played out on an elaborate stage.

The plot is a fairly straightforward revenge yarn although, perhaps unsurprisingly with Lang occupying the director’s chair, it’s given a twist to keep it fresh. Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) is an ordinary cowboy who sees his world turned upside down when a couple of outlaws ride into town, raid the assayer’s office where his fiancée works, and rape and murder the girl in the process. Inevitably, Vern wants justice and sets out with the hastily assembled posse to track down the criminals. However, the traumatic event has caused cracks to appear in the apparently mild exterior of this man, and an obsessive streak begins to emerge when the posse refuses to continue what looks like a fruitless pursuit. Having scornfully dismissed his former friends, Vern sets out alone in search of a reckoning. The first third of the film is thus played out in typically noir fashion, as we follow Vern’s painstaking combing of the country for a clue that will lead him to those responsible for the death of his girl. His progress is charted through interviews and flashbacks, as he slowly pieces together the clues and draws ever closer to his quarry. The final piece of the puzzle, or at least the piece that will bring him within striking distance of the murderer, comes when he contrives to have himself thrown in prison with notorious outlaw Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer). Along the way, Vern has learned that the key to the mystery lies with a woman by the name of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) and a place called Chuck-A-Luck. His acquaintance with Frenchy, and his part in making good their jail break, ensures Vern’s smooth entry to the semi-mythical Chuck-A-Luck. This is a ranch, run by Altar, serving as a front for an outlaw refuge where no questions are asked so long as the proprietress is paid 10% of any and all takings. Vern is now in a position to work through a shortlist of possible candidates who may be the murderer. Yet, there is a price to be paid; his initial quest for justice has evolved into a thirst for vengeance and has transformed his character in the process. By the end, the hero has become as violent, manipulative and ruthless as the man he set out to find.

Rancho Notorious was the last of three westerns that Fritz Lang made, and it’s arguably his most interesting. The idea of the ordinary guy overtaken by events and thrown into a world of violence and deceit that’s alien to him is one that can be found throughout Lang’s work. The central theme of how a desire for revenge can twist a formerly decent man and leave him on a par with the criminals he’s pursuing would be further, and more competently, explored when the director returned to it in The Big Heat a year later. Although all of Lang’s westerns contain elements of his trademark noir sensibilities, Rancho Notorious displays them most prominently. I’ve mentioned the use of the flashback in the first half hour of the picture, but the mood and photography all the way through help to cement the fatalistic and pessimistic sense that pervades the movie. One could, I suppose, complain about the overuse of painted backdrops and the ever-present ballad that serves as a stylized voiceover narration for the unfolding plot, but I prefer to see these as tools that Lang used to create his own vision of a dark frontier. The film is less concerned with showing any accurate portrayal of the west than it is with detailing the downward spiral of an essentially good man into a world of corruption and violence.

Marlene Dietrich had already played the archetypical bad saloon girl over a decade before in Destry Rides Again, and her role as Altar Keane comes off as an older but only slightly wiser version of that same character; between these two films she created the template against which all such portrayals would subsequently be judged. Dietrich apparently disliked the film and the reasons for that are detailed in a fine post by Toby at 50 Westerns here. Despite all the discord on the set, she turns in a fine performance as a woman who’s gained a lot of experience but little personal fulfillment. She may well rule the roost at Chuck-A-Luck, but there’s a weary, resigned air about her that indicates happiness has passed her by. Mel Ferrer was an actor I’m generally not that fond of, but I thought the mournful passivity that he possessed was used to good effect here, a nice counterbalance to Arthur Kennedy’s twitchiness. Kennedy wasn’t really a leading man at any point in his career – his best and most memorable work was usually done when he was playing the villainous supporting role – yet that actually makes his casting here more successful. His nondescript, everyman quality is suited to the role of Vern Haskell and he really taps into the obsessive, driven nature of his character as the movie progresses. As an aside, I’ve often seen it stated that Vern falls for Altar after his arrival at Chuck-A-Luck, but I’ve never thought that was the case at all. To me, he’s become so consumed by hate at this stage that he’s incapable of loving anyone and is merely feigning attraction to get nearer to his ultimate goal.

For a long time I had the UK DVD release of Rancho Notorious from Optimum, and it was never particularly satisfying – soft and with washed out colours. The movie then came out in the US as part of the Warner Archive series, sporting an altogether stronger transfer. Since then, I picked up the French release by Films Sans Frontieres which I’m very happy with. It’s a significant improvement on my old Optimum disc and, judging from screencaps, looks very close to the quality of the Archive disc. It’s sharper and more colourful but there’s still some print damage on view. Forced subtitles on the English track are always a concern with French releases but this disc allows them to be disabled via the setup menu. Rancho Notorious isn’t one of Fritz Lang’s better regarded films and tends to be criticised quite a lot. I think this is a little unfair; while it may not be his best work it’s still very entertaining. Much of the problem may come down to a question of expectations, with the film suffering from viewers approaching it with the thought that they will be getting a standard oater. If you accept that you’re in for a piece of high melodrama in a stylized western setting then the movie is unlikely to disappoint.

Advertisements

29 thoughts on “Rancho Notorious

  1. My very first impression of Rancho Notorious when I saw it as a child was not good. I think, for precisely the reasons you’ve suggested in your review Colin…that I was expecting a ‘normal’ western and didn’t get one. Since then, it has gone up in my esteem considerably. The mood is very different from other westerns. Vaguely similar to Johnny Guitar in some ways but overall, pretty unique. You’ve captured it well.
    That song that plays throughout the film does its job effectively. When you get a song like that to ‘comment’ on the action you’re treading a fine line (I’ve seen this technique render some films unintentionally funny) but sometimes, like here and Cat Ballou for example, it just works. It’s also stragely addictive. Every time I watch the film, for a couple of days afterwards, I find myself launching into impromptu choruses of “Two men rode away from Chuck-a-Luck…Chuck-a-Luck.”
    to the understandable annoyance of colleagues. 🙂
    I wasn’t aware that there was a French disc out there with improved picture quality over the Optimum version. I’ll have to get one. Thanks Colin.

    • Hi Dafydd. Yes, there are points which bear comparison with Johnny Guitar, especially the “strong woman” role and the vaguely lurid overall appearance.

      I’ve read some scathing comments in the past about the use of the song as a narrative accompaniment but, like yourself, it works for me.

  2. Had this material been filmed at Republic with R. G. Springsteen directing and Bill Elliott as Vern it might have been simpler, more straightforwrd and less cartoonish. It is difficult to believe that even the most modest effort by Lang gets the auteur theory treatment. An overly stylized job indifferently received at the time of release by “critics” and less well received by the public. And Johnny Guitar has it all over this thing.

    • Another director would certainly have toned down the higher strung elements of the movie, but I don’t think it would have been anywhere near as interesting. It has Lang’s influence stamped all over it though, from the visuals to the theme.

  3. Since I’m a Marlene Dietrich fan, I really do need to screen this. And it looks like I’ll have to go the Warner Archive route. Thanks for the heads up, Colin.

    • Hi Michael. Yes, I guess the Archive would be the most suitable option for this movie in the States, and the PQ for that edition seems quite acceptable.

  4. R. G. Springsteen brought a bit of sobriety to his projects and had a hint of sensitivity. He made second features and made them well. Other than Lang, and casting the blame on RKO–which I don’t–this is a film by Howard Welsch. Welsch produced ten or so pictures between 1948 and 1954. All of them were intriguing, until at last you actually saw one. Hunting up his credit list is worthwhile. All misses that must have seemed promising on paper.

  5. Excellent stuff Colin – I’ve always found it hard to really warm to this movie and I think you sum up the pros and cons very succinctly here. Lang’s later work, especially after the high of THE BIG HEAT, seem to retreat into artificuality though as you say, the shrinking budgets must have been largely responsible for this. But there is also a lack of adornment, a desire to explore moral dilemmas and dramas in a more direct way which I think can be very appealing. That simplicity though can be both disarming and taken for a lack of sophistication and I tend to teeter somewhere between the two. I think you’re right about Kennedy’s lack of interest in romance though.

    • Thanks Sergio. This is a movie that gets a lot of bad press, and I understand that. Yet, for me, most of the perceived weaknesses are among its strengths. I like the artificiality, the way the western setting is really only incidental to the story; I appreciate how the lack of expressiveness in some of the acting ties in with the fatalistic attitude of characters who have essentially given up on life; I think the lurid sets lend an air of theatricality to increase the dramatic effect, and so on.
      Then again, I’ll freely admit that I’m biased in finding much to admire in almost all of Lang’s US films – although I do struggle to find a great deal of worth in Cloak and Dagger.

      • I think the Noir analogy is definitely the best way to enjoy RANCHO – and I know what you mean about CLOAK AND DAGGER as it really is a bit dull and worthy – apart from that brief fight on the landing (I think) nothing ever really seems to happen. Mind you, I can be a bit slow on the critical uptake sometimes – I think I had to watch BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT about 3 times before I really started to appreciate it!

        • I think Lang was definitely looking to play up the noir aspect of the movie as much as he could. The story could very easily to relocated to an urban setting in the post-WWII years and still work; the fact that it takes place in the old west is very much secondary to what actually happens.
          I don’t believe you’re alone in having issues with some of Lang’s later work as they can be a little difficult to get into. Of course, many noir, or noir-tinged, movies do need more than one viewing to be fully appreciated – in terms of plotting alone, there’s often too much going on to get a real handle on it all first time round.

  6. Like Dafydd, I originally saw this film as a child; however the unusual “feel” of the film, the presence of Marlene Deitrich, and the concluding scenes, remained indelibly etched in my memory. When I first purchased a DVD player, many years later, “Rancho Notorious” was one of my first acquitions and I have enjoyed it many times since.

    Colin, thanks for your interesting review.

    • Hi Rod. I guess that’s one thing most everyone can agree on about this movie – whether one is a fan or not, it certainly makes an impression and sticks in the mind.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. This one has been on my to-watch list for a long time but I haven’t been able to get my hands on the disc. Will be on the lookout for the Films Sans Frontieres release. Great post, as always.

    • Thanks. Yes, for anyone outside the US, the French release is probably the best bet in terms of both cost and picture quality. It goes by the title of L’Ange des Maudits.

  8. G’day mate, and welcome back from your holidays!

    As others have mentioned above, there are points of similarity to Johnny Guitar but I think Rancho’s closest antecedent is King Vidor’s wonderfully high gloss, Duel in the Sun.

    Elaborate stylisation would’ve been one of the hooks that held Lang’s interest for such a small scale Western – you see carefully constructed and controlled environments all the way through his career. I read a comment after I’d seen his Indian saga that if Lang were directing today he’d be making films based on graphic novels. If you ride into Rancho Notorious looking for a cowboy comic book come to life – and especially if you have an appreciation for noir – it’s a real treat!

    Best from a fellow Langlubber,
    Chris B

    • Hi Chris and thanks.
      The film does have a certain dark comic book quality. That’s an interesting idea about Lang making graphic novel adaptations if were alive and working today. It sounds fantastical in some respects but I suspect there’s a bit of truth in there too; Lang was always on top of what was culturally significant or popular at any given time, so maybe it’s not such a stretch.

    • Well, it is very stylized and that doesn’t grab everyone so I quite understand how it’s going to be seen as either a movie you definitely like or one you just as definitely dislike.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s