Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Rancho Notorious (1952)

The period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s was the golden age of the Hollywood western, an age of westerns that were more than just horse operas. Intelligent, emotionally and morally complex grown-up westerns. But parallel to this was the flowering of a much smaller crop of slightly offbeat westerns - overheated western melodramas and westerns that were defiantly unconventional. It started with Duel in the Sun and continued with movies like The Furies, Johnny Guitar and Forty Guns. Another western that seems to belong in this oddball category is Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952).

Rancho Notorious gives us the initial impression that it’s going to a straightforward revenge western. Ranch hand Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) is looking forward to marrying his sweetheart in eight days’ time but while he’s out riding the range outlaws arrive in town and rob the assayers’ office where Vern’s fiancée works. She is killed, but before she is killed she is raped (something that is made surprisingly explicit for 1952 Hollywood).

A posse is formed but they are forced to give up the chase. Vern however is determined on revenge even if he has to go it alone. He has one clue, picked up from a dying outlaw. The word chuck-a-luck. Vern knows that this is the name of a popular gambling game but he knows that the outlaw used the term in a more specialised sense. It has to refer to a place, maybe a saloon somewhere, or maybe it refers in some way to a person. He can unravel that clue he’ll find the man who killed his bride-to-be.

He finds some other possible clues. If he can find a woman named Altar Keane and an outlaw named Frenchy Fairmont he may find the answers he seeks. We get a series of flashbacks through the eyes of several different people all of whom have vivid memories of the outrageous Altar Keane.

He finds Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) and helps him break out of gaol and he finds Chuck-a-Luck. It’s an isolated ranch, and it’s run by Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).

Chuck-a-Luck isn’t so much a ranch as a haven for outlaws. It’s a place they can hide out when they need to. Altar gets a cut of the proceeds of their robberies. There are nearly a dozen outlaws holed up there when Vern arrives. He thinks one of them is his fiancée’s killer but he doesn’t know which one. If he stays long enough he might figure it out.

Complications arise due to a mutual attraction between Vern and Altar. Altar is Frenchy’s girl. Frenchy likes Vern but he has no intention of allowing anyone to take Altar away from him.

The revenge theme and the lust theme (the romantic triangle between Vern, Frenchy and Altar) never lets up in this movie.

Due to budgetary constraints this movie was shot entirely in the studio apart from a few scenes on the backlot. There’s none of the location shooting that was beginning to be seen as absolutely essential in the western genre. This not only makes the film claustrophobic it also makes it seem very artificial. As someone who despises the cult of realism that’s one of the things I love about this movie.

Lang conceived this movie right from the start entirely as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich.It didn’t work out the way he’d hoped. By the time the movie was finished they weren’t speaking to each other. But Dietrich still dominates the movie and her charisma makes her performance work.

This is a very unusual western. There’s no straightforward hero and no straightforward heroine. Vern seems initially to be set up as a conventional outlaw but he turns outlaw and he isn’t just pretending in order to catch that killer. He happily participates in robberies. His response to the murder of his girl is to reject all the social norms in which he once believed.

Frenchy is an unrepentant outlaw. Altar is a crook as well.

In spite of this all three are thoroughly sympathetic characters and the movie encourages us to take their side. The message seems to be that being an outlaw is a perfectly respectable lifestyle option. Thieves can be really nice people. And here we have a hero who starts out good and comes to realise he can never return to his old life. But being an outlaw isn’t so bad. And there’s no suggestion that we should condemn him for this.

I have no idea how this got past the Production Code Authority. I can only assume that somehow they simply didn’t notice that a movie that is unapologetically on the side of law-breakers was being slipped past them. And in this movie law-breakers don’t necessarily pay for their crimes. Some do, some don’t.

The plot is pretty straightforward but the plot doesn’t matter too much and the movie ends up being a strange very stylised western that makes no concessions to realism. In its own way it’s as bizarre and unusual as Forty Guns (which is pretty much the gold standard for bizarre westerns).

Rancho Notorious wasn’t liked by critics at the time and it’s still generally dismissed as one of Lang’s weakest films but it’s actually a totally fascinating mesmerising movie and I loved it. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Of all the 'defiantly unconventional westerns', I too enjoyed this.