“The old, old story of hate, murder, and revenge” (from the song, Chuck-a-Luck)
There’s a BBC radio talk show I listen to as a podcast, In Our Time, chaired by Melvyn Bragg. I actually think it’s the gold standard of talk shows. Lord Bragg brings together three of the best experts on the topic of the day – which can be in the arts or sciences – and recently we got a discussion on Fritz Lang (here, if you are interested – external link). When I lived in Italy I knew a film studies fellow, Stefano Socci, who wrote a book on Lang (he kindly gave me a copy) and so one way and another I have got quite interested in the Austrian-born director.
To their eternal shame (not really) Bragg’s distinguished guests discussed at some length such Lang works as Metropolis, M and The Big Heat but didn’t even mention his Westerns. Lang helmed three: two for Fox in the early 40s and then a later one – which is the subject of today’s review.
There’s a fascinating trend of European film makers from Europe, often fleeing Nazi persecution, coming to Hollywood and falling head-over-heels for the American hard-boiled genres – war, noir and Western. There were many but we might think first of Michael Curtiz, Otto Preminger, Douglas Sirk, André De Toth, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann – and Fritz Lang. Lang said, “I like Westerns. They have an ethic that is very simple and very necessary. It is an ethic which one doesn’t see now because critics are too sophisticated. They want to ignore that it is necessary to really love a woman and to fight for her.”
After making some of his greatest films in Weimar Germany, Lang finally left for good in July 1933 (Goebbels called Lang to his offices to inform him that The Testament of Dr Mabuse was being banned), going first to Paris and then in 1936 to the US, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1939. He made twenty-three features in his 20-year Hollywood career. Though he never won or was even nominated for an Oscar, Lang made some famous and successful films, starting with Fury at MGM with Spencer Tracy. The two Fox Westerns The Return of Frank James (1941), the sequel to Henry King’s Jesse James (1939) and in my view actually a better film, and Western Union later the same year, also very good, were early Hollywood jobs, and he did them remarkably well for an ‘intellectual’ European film maker.
But for the rest of the 1940s and early 50s he did no more Westerns. He did make crime/noir thrillers – the Wikipedia bio says that his work “is now seen as integral to the emergence and evolution of American genre cinema, film noir in particular. Scarlet Street (1945), one of his films featuring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, is considered a central film in the genre” – but not oaters.
But he would do one more, for RKO in 1952. According to articles of the time in Variety, it was to have been another Lang Western for Fox but when cash-strapped production company Fidelity Pictures learned that the film would not be released or paid for by Fox until mid-1952, they backed out of the deal and sold the film to RKO, hoping for a faster return on their close to $1m investment in the project. In the end, though, it wasn’t released until March 1952 anyway.
Producer Howard Welsch had ridden through B territory for his previous Westerns, with second-feature pictures starring Alan Curtis and Jon Hall, and Rancho Notorious was his first approaching a big-name star and a reasonable (if still restrained) budget. The same year as Rancho he would do two other ‘strong dame’ Westerns, The San Francisco Story with Yvonne De Carlo and Montana Belle with Jane Russell, then that was it.
Whether it was Welsch or RKO, probably the latter, the whole picture did not have the Fox production values. There are few location shots, most being done in the studio with very obvious fake scenery and painted backdrops. And indeed, as it turned out, the picture had little of the magic of Lang’s earlier Westerns for Fox. Variety’s review said, rightly in my view, “This Marlene Dietrich western has some of the flavor of the old outdoor classics (like the actress’s own onetime Destry Rides Again) without fully capturing their quality and magic.”
For yes, it was a Dietrich vehicle. She of course was another of the Hollywood glitterati with a Euro-background (and an accent she never quite lost). The American Film Institute has named her the ninth greatest female screen legend of classic Hollywood cinema, though I’m not sure that these rankings are particularly helpful. Certainly she was a major screen presence and perhaps surprisingly she had in fact done Westerns. She was unforgettable topping the bill in Universal’s Destry Rides Again in 1939, with James Stewart, and equally memorable with John Wayne and Randolph Scott in the studio’s 1942 (and best) version of The Spoilers. The story is that Rancho cinematographer Hal Mohr, who had worked with Marlene on Destry, attempted to resign from the film due to the star’s insistence that he use lighting to make her look much younger than she actually was (which was pushing 50), and Mohr didn’t think it was possible, poor man. Well, he was persuaded to stay, and he got the DP credit.
Lang was notably abusive to his actors (he had famously thrown Peter Lorre down some stairs to make him look rumpled) and he had a running battle with Dietrich. It wasn’t a happy ship. She comes across as listless, without any of the Destry spark.
The movie’s title, by the way, is quirky. The ranch of the oddly-named Altar Keane (Dietrich) is called Chuck-a-Luck (she bought it from winnings at the saloon game) and is never referred to as Notorious. I watched the movie recently on British TV which I get by satellite here in France and I found it hilarious when the posh announcer introduced it as Rarnchoe Notorious. In fact it was RKO studio boss Howard Hughes who insisted on the name (he often made such changes) because he said non-American audiences wouldn’t know what chuck-a-luck was. Lang replied, “Well, it’s a good thing that they all know what ‘Rancho Notorious’ means!”
It’s basically a revenge Western, like so many. In Wyoming, a wicked outlaw, Kinch (Lloyd Gough: although he plays a key role in the drama he was uncredited because he was blacklisted that year) rapes and kills a young girl (Gloria Henry) who is the fiancée of ranch hand Vern Haskell. Of course these vile deeds are not shown, or even explicitly mentioned, just broadly hinted at “I don’t know how to tell you this,” says the doctor, “but she wasn’t spared anything”. Haskell devotes years of his life to hunting down this malefactor.
They chose Arthur Kennedy to play Haskell, second-billed after la Dietrich. This was his eighth feature Western. He’d started near the top with third billing on Warners’ Custer whitewash They Died With Their Boots On in 1941 and had been Jim Younger in Bad Men of Missouri the same year. Parts in Cheyenne, The Walking Hills and Red Mountain followed. 1952 was a big Western year for him because in addition to his lead (effectively) in Rancho, he was especially memorable in Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, and was also excellent in the Nicholas Ray-directed rodeo flick The Lusty Men (another silly title invented by Hughes). In 1955 he was also to be good in another Mann/Stewart Western, The Man from Laramie. He was still doing Westerns in 1968, with an equally aging Glenn Ford in the less-than-brilliant Day of the Evil Gun. He did sixteen big-screen oaters in all. For me, his best Western performance came in the ‘minor’ picture The Naked Dawn in 1955, in which he was outstanding. He was 37 when Rancho was filmed (March/June 1951) and not altogether convincing as the kid in love but he was fine for the rest of the film as the years are supposed to have passed.
He pals up with gunfighter Frenchy Fairmont, “the fastest draw in the West”, who fills the older-and-wiser mentor role. Fairmont was played by Mel Ferrer, who was actually three years younger than Kennedy, but never mind; they gave him gray hair. Ferrer was not exactly a Western specialist – in fact this was his only one – but he does a good job. Friends Frenchy and Vern will become rivals for the affections of Altar Keane. No wonder la Dietrich, born 1901, wanted the make-up and lighting departments to, er, rejuvenate her. One wonders if there’s some deliberate role-reversal going on, with Ferrer’s character having the same name as Dietrich’s in Destry: Frenchy.
The idea is that Chuck-a-Luck (sorry, I mean Notorious) is a refuge for outlaws on the run from the law. The owner, Altar, provides shelter in return for 10% of their loot (which reviewer Dennis Schwarz called “a ludicrous ploy, as if one expected the bandits to be honest with her and give her the exact amount to stay; but it is fair to say, that reality was not one of the film’s strong points”). Good news: among these ne’er-do-wells are some of our old favorites, such as Frank Ferguson, Jack Elam, Francis McDonald, TV’s Superman George Reeves and John Doucette in a blond wig (though John doesn’t quite make it because he is shot in the back by his evil pard before he can reach the ranch). Frank is especially good as a scurrilous preacher (self-ordained, one supposes) in a frock coat, but this doesn’t stop him cheerfully participating in a planned bank job – in which, oh dear, he loses his life. Fuzzy Knight provides comic relief as a barber who shaves one customer (Frenchy) with one hand while cutting the hair of another (Vern) at the same time.
There are quite a few flashbacks as Vern asks different people he tracks down about this ranch and its owner. Probably the most famous sequence of the movie comes when one of these flashbacks shows Altar, when she was a saloon gal, taking part in a ‘horse race’ in a saloon, with the girls mounted on the backs of cowpokes, and all sorts of dirty tricks being allowed.
To be honest, though, this is one of the few lively sequences in the picture. The rest is pretty plodding. Lang seemed to have lost his Western touch. The script didn’t help. It was by Daniel Taradash, of From Here to Eternity fame, but this was his first and almost only Western, from a story, Gunsight Whitman, by Silvia Richards, who had written Secret Beyond the Door for Lang but Rancho and a co-writer credit on Tomahawk the year before were her only forays onto the prairie. The script doesn’t exactly rattle along. There’s only one good line, when sad Altar tells young Vern “Go away and come back ten years ago.”
Another problem with the movie is that there is a wretched ballad, The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck, ‘music’ and lyrics by Ken Darby, sung by William Lee, curse him, which serves as a narration, recounting the story. It’s a sort of folksy Greek chorus that you wish would stop. Cheesy isn’t the word for it, and when it comes on yet again you are tempted to turn the sound down. To learn how awful it is (and for no other reason) you can click here (external link).
Visually, Rancho Notorious reminds us of Johnny Guitar (Republic, 1954) and Nicholas Ray must have seen it. It also has that embryonic plot of a Belle Starr-esque bandit chief dame. It is a stylized Western with bright, primary colors and dramatic, even melodramatic painted studio sets. In addition, the overdrawn characters and hammed-up dialogues are notable. But Johnny Guitar, though weird, was an art movie, a camp classic, and Joan Crawford was on fire. Rancho Notorious is hard-boiled but basically bland.
Dietrich does a bit of what the New York Times reviewer called her “drowsy optics”. She sleepwalks through this picture anyway. There are a few fights orchestrated by Lang and a song or two but they don’t really help.
It didn’t do well at the box office. Western honors that year were scooped up by High Noon, and Viva Zapata! was quite big too. Bend of the River and The Big Sky did well. Even the Roy Huggins-directed Randolph Scott oater Hangman’s Knot (actually, rather good) did better.
It was not received rapturously by the critics either. Variety thought the star was “as sultry and alluring as ever”. It added, “Dietrich is a dazzling recreation of the oldtime saloon mistress” but it didn’t like “the corny plot”. The New York Times thought that she was “but an echo of La Dietrich of yore” and said she “strolls in listless fashion through the standard conceits of a role”. It thought the writing poor: “The screen play Daniel Taradash has rigged up for this occasion is a rambling and motley affair that falls between slambang horse-opera and good-natured travesty of same.” The reviewer summed it up by saying, “Anyone who expects a western picture to match the character of its able female star had better look in another direction. This one is run-of-the-mill.”
Later crits have not been much kinder. Brian Garfield said, “Not much happens. The directing is hard-boiled but exceedingly slow. The going is turgid for Dietrich and for the audience.” Dennis Schwarz criticized “having the 51-year-old Marlene being the sexpot in the film, a casting decision which seems to me based more for her star power than for looking the part.” He finally said that “The film has a certain electricity about it, even if it does seem a bit corny at times” – though myself I think that electricity is exactly what’s missing.
With the director and cast it has, Rancho Notorious is the sort of Western you probably need to see, once.