1952 feature film
Legendary German film director Fritz Lang joined
forces with Howard Hughes at RKO to create this uniquely styled Western based on the novel
"Gunsight Whitman" by Silvia Richards. That mismatched pairing was just one
of several disparate parts that went into the creation of "Rancho Notorious"
- a mixture of ideas with an assortment of results.
The plot concerns revenge and loyalty, favorite obsessions for Fritz Lang.
Vern (Arthur Kennedy) is a simple but honest cowboy until his fiancée is
brutally raped and murdered during a robbery. Bent on retribution he tracks
her killer to a hidden hideout for criminals called Chuck-a-Luck, which is
run by a notorious woman named Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) along with her
lover, gunslinger Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer). Although the two men bond
immediately, Vern is willing to believe Frenchy's the rapist / killer and
doesn't hesitate to make a play for Altar. Suspense builds as Vern follows
clues that reveal the vicious killer, and by movie's end Altar proves who
she really loves by taking the bullet meant for him.
The two men ride off together, but a song sung over their fading figures
suggests they'll die in battle the next day.
Sometimes called Western Film Noir, "Rancho Notorious" has aspects of both
but would more aptly be called an atmospheric adult Western. Lang is more
interested in his characters than any action, and he seems to be playing
with the idea that heroes can be less honorable than the villains they seek.
The background story of Altar and Frenchy is done through beautifully
crafted flashbacks, and both are sympathetic multifaceted characters despite
their outlaw status, people with decided ethics and an unspoken code of
their own. Vern, on the other hand, may have a justifiable rage, but his
gritty determination to uncover the killer of his girlfriend takes on a
vengeful wrath that lacks loyalty toward any other cause. But apparently
evil must never prevail for Lang, hence the hint that both men will perish
on the morrow along with one genuine villain - the killer of Vern's fiancée.
The photography is lush and vivid with a watercolor feel to exteriors that
is perhaps attributable to Hughes' budget cuts at
the time, yet it still gives the film an undeniable feel that's unique and
special. This is clearly not your average Western.
Fritz Lang's original title for the film was "The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck,"
and he uses a lengthy song as narrative over
the ongoing action to help explain the Chuck-a-Luck myth. Although the song
itself doesn't fit the feel of the film, its lyrics help explain Lang's
overall concept of the movie and it was probably also used as a device to
make the film seem more like a typical American Western. Nevertheless, Howard Hughes decided to rename the film, and
over Lang's loudly voiced objections it was
released at the last moment with the more glamorous but far less appropriate title
of "Rancho Notorious."
Like everything else about this movie, the casting is interesting. Marlene
Dietrich (despite her well documented dislike of this project) was well cast
as the aging dance hall hostess whose honesty and sense of fair play allows
her to successfully take on a second career. Mel Ferrer, too,
is perfect as her lover and partner, the sympathetically reluctant fastest gun in the West. It's one
of the few times he was cast as a glamour boy and it works
well, as does his rapport with Ms. Dietrich. He seems to be having fun
with the part and the Western costumes are ideal for his long-limbed frame. Arthur
Kennedy is superb as the complicated vengeful hero but less successful as
the romantic interest for Altar Keane, the problem lying partially with the
part, which undercuts the hero at this point. Secondary roles are
appealing, too, with such character actors as George Reeves, Jack Elam,
William Frawley and Frank Ferguson in various roles of prominence.
In many interviews as well as in her published autobiography, Marlene
Dietrich openly despised this film. Fritz Lang's reputation for being
difficult and even cruel
with his actors was more pronounced here, as the two Germans
quite openly detested each other. Her opinion was certainly shared by some of
Hollywood's best known actors, but not by Mel Ferrer - at least publicly.
The two actors, on the other hand, got on extremely well, with Mel Ferrer telling
different interviewers that he "adored the lady" and Marlene later writing that
"If Mel Ferrer had not been there, I probably would have walked off the set
in the middle of shooting. But Mel was always near and helped to see me
through those troublesome days." During and after the film they were close
friends and he even went to Las Vegas to stage a nightclub act for her in
This is a movie readily available in all formats. Unfortunately, there
aren't any extras on the DVD versions.