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"Now where and what is Chuck-a-Luck?
Rancho Notorious hasn't weathered well despite the fact that it has two of Germany's greatest filmic exports working together. Even enthusiastic museum audiences laugh at the lyrics of The Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck, the song that director Fritz Lang uses to shape an ordinary oater into a heavy-duty legend of the old west. Every stanza of the ballad finishes with an overstated full stop on the words "HATE, MURDER AND REVENGE!"
Fritz Lang was in the unstable final leg of his Hollywood career, making plenty of interesting pictures but few hits. This would be the last starring role for Marlene Dietrich, at age 51; people forget that her terrific later appearances in Witness for the Prosecution and Touch of Evil were showy but small supporting parts. Orson Welles simply slipped her onto the set of Touch of Evil; the studio didn't know she was in the film until she showed up in dailies! Dietrich was concerned to erase as many years as possible from her image in Rancho and was surely unhappy with the results. Although she's definitely arresting in the looks department, Hal Mohr's mostly high-key, flat Technicolor lighting hides very little. Dietrich's makeup always seems too thick under those merciless lights.
This was the third and last western for Fritz Lang, who clearly loved the genre; he had embraced exciting cowboy action in his Indiana Jones- like 1919 thriller The Spiders. His Western Union (message-free) and The Return of Frank James for Fox ten years before turn weak stories into genre highlights, simply because Lang is clearly enamored with the subject matter.
Rancho Notorious is exactly what the Ballad says it is, a tale of hate, murder and revenge. It informs its generic western situations with the same kind of expressionist fury seen in the next year's film noir The Big Heat. Carefree Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) gives his sweetheart Beth (Gloria Henry) a fancy brooch just before she is raped and murdered by a thief. Haskell then devotes his life to the sole task of tracking down Beth's killer. He drifts back and forth across the west, picking up clues: a mysterious outlaw hideout called Chuck-a-Luck; the names Altar Keane and Frenchy. Vern grows more cynical as he hears stories of corruption; he purposely lands in jail to hook up with an outlaw who might further his quest. Trying to buy a drink on election day gets him locked up, only to see the losing candidates served liquor in jail because they'll probably be lynched later in the evening. Vern finally makes it to Chuck-a-Luck, becoming a close friend of the outlaw Frenchy (Mel Ferrer, quite good for a change) and the gang leader Altar Keane (Dietrich). Keane takes a cut from every robbery. Vern learns to shoot like a gunslinger and redirects his charm to seduce the beautiful Altar. He suspects Frenchy and the womanizing braggart Wilson (George Reeves, on down-time from Superman) of being his fiancée's killer, but he's waiting for the brooch to show up as evidence. By this time, Vern is participating in robberies and contemplating killings of his own. The story of "hate, murder and revenge" has already changed his life.
Fritz Lang's tight schematics add to the feeling that Rancho Notorious is more dated than other westerns from its era -- every "director's touch" is heavily underlined. The expensive Technicolor cinematography puts limits on Lang's style, reducing his signature moods and simplifying his directing style -- in Technicolor, every re-light is a half-day's work. Altar Keane is introduced in a flashback to a bar-room "horsie" race that's a single master shot with a couple of cutaways. Rancho Notorious probably has fewer camera angles than most Lang films previously, and many scenes play in fairly straight wide coverage. Lang would later refine this economy-dictated style into his own brand of visual aceticism, until the background settings in pictures like Beyond a Reasonable Doubt have almost no personality at all.
But Rancho Notorious' complex orchestration of themes needs no apologies. Vern Haskell's fairly innocent cowpoke experiences a violent tragedy and commits himself to vengeance, as do characters from Germanic myth. Like detective O'Bannion in The Big Heat he becomes an outlaw, and he voluntarily participates in the robbing of a bank. In terms of movie morality this is a western no-no; Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott pretended to go bad in undercover westerns but Vern goes all the way. What's more, the fastest gun in the West Frenchy turns out to be a sad guy who became an outlaw by being cheated of his home after the Civil War. We never see Frenchy fight a duel; just strutting his stuff is enough to intimidate troublemakers. Altar Keane is likewise an entertainer who more or less was compelled by tough conditions toward ever-shadier activities. Survival in the hostile West has led her to running a mini-empire of outlaws. Marlene Dietrich is sufficiently hardboiled to convince us that she can keep a dozen thieves and murderers in line; it's as if her dance-hall girl in Destry Rides Again didn't meet James Stewart and lived to see darker days.
Vern's presence knocks Chuck-a-Luck off balance. He threatens Frenchy's relationship with Altar and makes Altar question her choices in life: "Go away and come back ten years ago." The romance that Vern offers -- and then reveals is a ruse -- cracks Altar's tough exterior to the point that she goes against her own better judgment and begins making altruistic gestures. The final gunfight settles Vern's desire for revenge but makes him a wanted drifter just like Frenchy ... the stuff of western legend.
Rancho Notorious was produced at RKO. We are told that some of the film's "ambient" scenes were trimmed against Lang's will, in the script stage. Although a few exteriors are present the picture frequently plays out against painted backdrops and uses mattes to create western vistas; it's awfully claustrophobic for an outdoorsy story. In a couple of years CinemaScope would mandate that virtually ALL westerns be shot on location and given a "big sky" look. RKO boss Howard Hughes also interfered with the cast billing. The Chuck-a-Luck gang has a number of familiar faces. My favorite is John Doucette, who dies early on and is hidden behind long white hair and a beard. Nevertheless we immediately recognize his voice. The main bad guy is played by Lloyd Gough (Tension), a fine actor victimized by the blacklist. Rancho Notorious was Gough's last Hollywood film for nine years. He should be given at least fourth billing, but by Hughes decree his name doesn't even appear on screen. The Hollywood blacklist could deny an actor's very right to exist.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Rancho Notorious is a fine transfer of this film originally shot in 3-Strip Technicolor. Contrast, sharpness and hue are stable throughout. It's the best I've ever seen the picture look. The title tune sung by Bill Lee (who provided the superb singing voice for John Kerr in South Pacific) is so up-front and grating it makes one wince, but it's as clear as a bell. Ken Darby also contributes music and lyrics for Get Away Young Man and Gypsy Davey, both sung by Dietrich. No trailer is included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rancho Notorious rates:
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