Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Classic Cinema Corner: The Cheap Thrills and Kitschy Charm of Fritz Lang's Beautifully Bodacious Rancho Notorious

Below is my take on a mostly (and a wrongly) forgotten film from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The 1952 Fritz Lang western, Rancho Notorious. There may be some who call this film a B-movie train wreck. I am not one of these people, and in my not-so-humble opinion, Rancho Notorious ranks at the top of the heap when it comes to Fritz Lang's Hollywood output. Outside of some certain camp circles (and perhaps amongst the Dietrich cults) the movie doesn't get the respect that others of Herr Lang's Hollywood films do. Films such as FuryThe Big HeatScarlet Street and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt. are the Hollywood era Lang films that get the kind of praise that his earlier German films do. Rancho Notorious does not often get included in such praise, but for pure giddy enjoyment, the wonderfully, and luridly, named Rancho Notorious is the one that does it for this critic and die hard cinephile. Hell, one might even say this is my favourite Fritz Lang film overall, even when set side-by-side with the aforementioned German films like Metropolis or M. Sure, that may be a pretty bold statement, but I said it and I'm sticking to it. Now let's talk about the movie.

The story is about Vern Haskell, played by Arthur Kennedy, and his search and destroy mission against those responsible for the rape and murder of his fiancee. After hunting down one of the culprits (who has recently been shot by his partner) the man's dying words of "chuck-a-luck" are all Vern has to go on - but his determination carries him on. Finding out the name of Altar Keane and her connection to "chuck-a-luck" (an old time saloon game similar to roulette that Keane has made a fortune on and has in turn given the name to the ranch she now runs), Vern tracks down one of her colleagues, a gunslinger named Frenchy Fairmont and befriends him in order to get close to Altar and find out what she knows. What Vern finds out is that Altar runs a ranch for thieves and bandits and killers who come there to lay low from the law for a while - always of course giving Altar her fair share of whatever robbery they have perpetrated. He also finds out that in order to get close enough to get answers he may have to join these criminals and thus become one of them. This is where the story becomes more than mere western and turns into an almost revisionist film noir type of oddity. This is where the movie becomes more than mere movie and turns into the subversive classic it damn well should be heralded as. This is where it becomes Lang's best American film - hands down and no holds barred and all that jazz.

The big story though is of course Marlene Dietrich. The 51 year old actress, nay, make that icon, played the plump role of Altar Keane, godmother to this den of thieves and lover to its most charismatic rapscallion Frenchy Fairmont who is played with all kinds of cocksure bravura and fanciful aplomb by Mel Ferrer. Actually it is Ferrer who steals every scene he is in, even when it is opposite that aforementioned cinematic icon, so I suppose I should say the big story here is of course Mel Ferrer. But then again let's face it, it is Dietrich, all Dietrich - and she gets to play the diva offscreen as well as on. Supposedly bringing cinematographer Hal Mohr (who photographed everything from Captain Blood to The Wild One to Dietrich herself in Destry Rides Again) to the brink of resigning, the diva demanded he film her in a way that would make her appear younger than she actually was - and younger than Mohr thought possible. This better-youth-through-lighting aspect aside, Dietrich does look close to her own age and in a way that makes the film seem a bit on shaky ground since she is meant to me a much younger woman. Joan Crawford had the same dilemma in Johnny Guitar out a few years later, but her insistence she be filmed only in certain lighting and never never never outside a studio when it came to her close-ups, made for a better result.  

Still though, this concept of an older woman and a younger man (Ferrer was just 35 at the time) should not have been a big deal. It actually went the opposite way on many a movie, not just in classic Hollywood, but still to this day. Just ask Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn or John Wayne and Angie Dickinson. But the fact they tried to hide this age difference (more due to Dietrich's diva-dom, than anything else) just gave it a creepy aspect. In fact much of the film is done in a rather creepy manner. From Frenchy's snarky, slick, somewhat salacious scalawag to Dietrich's bravura black market bully, Lang populates his noir western with questionable characterizations and a dark, almost macabre undercurrent. Of course this just adds to the kitschy charm that was, is and always will be Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious.  And speaking of that great title (one of the best as far as kitschy titles go) it was not Lang's idea. The grand auteur wanted to call his film Chuck-a-Luck but the studio balked. According to the story, the studio was under the impression no one would know what Chuck-a-Luck meant and therefore would not understand the movie. Their solution was to call the movie Rancho Notorious. Lang had just one comment - "Well, it's a good thing that they all know what Rancho Notorious, which has nothing to do with anything in the film, means!"  Whatever the case, I do love the end result in names. Sorry Fritz.

Many claim Rancho Notorious to be one of Lang's lesser works, or at least one of his less respectable works. Bosley Crowther, divisive outspoken (some may say blowhard) critic of the New York Times said of the film, "In the department of western action, the show has its interesting points, including a couple of fist-and-gun fights that have been racily staged by Fritz Lang. Anyone who will settle for stick-ups and slug fests and pistol duels, all in Technicolor, may find enough in this picture to satiate his lust. Hungry-looking actors swagger and snarl in the outlaw roles. But 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." But it is this very (and I will say it again) kitschy charm that turns Lang's film into a camp masterpiece. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.


  1. This is, for me, right beside Johnny Guitar in seeing. Now I have finally seen Johnny Guitar and this has to be next. I love just about anything Fritz lang does and this may be another baroque masterwork in kitschy splendour. Mel Ferrer looks like sugar candy that i am certain Marlene wanted to taste. Now can you imagine if Crawford and Dietrich made a film together-the crew would run screaming and the set would go up in flames like Atlanta did

    1. If you enjoyed Johnny Guitar, you MUST see this one.

  2. Marlene was the epitome of sexy, even at the "advanced" age of 51.