Hate, Murder and Revenge
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Mention director Fritz Lang’s name to a movie fan and more likely than not they’ll conjure up visions of the style that eventually became identified as “film noir.” Lang was one of the godfathers of noir, with elements present in films from his German expressionist period (Der Müde Tod, M) to his later American works (The Woman in the Window, The Big Heat). Crime dramas were Lang’s forte, though he worked in any number of genres (one of his best-known vehicles, 1927’s Metropolis, is considered by many to a science-fiction masterpiece) but they all share a common thematic bond…one that was described succinctly by critic Andrew Sarris as “the same bleak view of the universe where man grapples with his personal destiny and invariably loses.”
Lang even directed Westerns, a genre that seems at first a bit alien to his cinematic M.O. The first two oaters he helmed, The Return of Frank James (1940; also his first color film) and Western Union (1941), were assignments during his stint at 20th Century Fox, but he nevertheless accepted both projects with enthusiasm, once comparing the history of the Old West to the European saga of the Nibelungen (a subject he brought to celluloid in back-to-back films released in 1924). His third and last Western — released to theaters 60 years ago on this date — was Rancho Notorious (1952), a film that succeeds despite so many things being against it and that today remains the most intriguing and “noir” of his brief flirtation with the genre.
Vern Haskell’s (Arthur Kennedy) dream of marrying fiancée Beth Forbes (Gloria Henry) vanishes in smoke when the assayer’s office in which she works is robbed by two desperadoes and she ends up dead after being shot by one of them, a man named Kinch (Lloyd Gough). Kinch and his partner Whitey (John Doucette) race out of town with a posse hot on their tails, but when the sheriff announces that they’ve ridden out of his jurisdiction and the remaining members refuse to ride any further; it’s up to the grieved Vern to continue the hunt. Vern finally catches up to Whitey, who’s been shot and left for dead by the treacherous Kinch after an argument. Whitey’s enigmatic dying words are “Chuck-a-luck,” and Vern persists in his pursuit despite not knowing its meaning.
As he rides from town to town in the search for answers, he manages to cross paths with a wanted outlaw (Fred Graham) in a barbershop who gives him another mysterious name: “Altar Keane.” The outlaw, Ace McGuire, draws on Vern when he realizes Vern is just seeking information and Haskell is forced to kill Ace in self defense. Taken into custody, Vern is cleared and offered a reward for McGuire’s killing but all Haskell is interested is information on “Altar Keane”; fortunately, a deputy (Dick Wessel) is able to identify her as a former saloon gal (Marlene Dietrich) he once knew but can’t give Vern any more than that.
Vern finally gets more background on Altar in another small town — she once worked for saloon owner Baldy Gunder (William Frawley), who after firing her helplessly watched her clean up at his chuck-a-luck game under the watchful eye of gunslinger Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer). Learning that Fairmont is cooling his heels in jail in the nearby hamlet of Gunsight, Vern manages to get himself arrested and thrown into the same jail cell as Frenchy, and the two men are able to execute a successful jailbreak. On the lam, Frenchy takes Vern to his hideout: a horse ranch near the Mexican border dubbed “Chuck-a-Luck” and run by Altar…who is now Frenchy’s girlfriend. Since Fairmont vouches for Vern, Altar agrees to allow Haskell to stay (the rules are that he is to ask no questions and do his fair share of work around the ranch) and introduces him to the rest of the men also hiding out at Chuck-a-Luck Ranch, who have gained admittance by tithing 10% of their stolen swag to their hostess. Vern’s assignment is to find out which of the guests is responsible for killing his fiancée, without tipping his hand that he’s just masquerading as an outlaw.
As Vern’s stay at Chuck-a-Luck stretches longer and longer, Altar begins to develop feelings for him and Vern reciprocates…but only to achieve his mission of locating the murderer, accelerated by the discovery of a brooch he gave to Beth as a gift that now adorns an evening dress worn by Altar. Vern is racing against the clock because the man responsible for Beth’s death, Kinch, is among the outlaw contingent and he recognizes Vern after seeing Haskell mount a horse one afternoon. When Vern must help the men rob a nearby bank to continue his outlaw charade, Kinch takes a shot at him and misses. Vern finally learns Kinch’s identity after presenting Altar with her share of the proceeds from the robbery, and confronting Kinch in a saloon, he manages to reign in his instincts to kill the outlaw, allowing the law to take over and mete out justice. Kinch is rescued by his pals before he is locked up, and the band of outlaws rides out to the ranch, convinced that Altar sold them out. Altar, in the meantime, has decided to abandon her life at Chuck-a-Luck and attempts to explain to a jealous Frenchy that she’s also given up on Vern, who had earlier could barely conceal his disgust with her lifestyle. Altar and Frenchy are then ambushed by the outlaws, and in the resulting shoot-out Kinch is killed (putting an end to Vern’s quest) and Altar dies from a bullet she took for her Frenchy.
Vern Haskell, the protagonist of Rancho Notorious, shares a similarity with those heroes played by James Stewart in the '50s Westerns directed by Anthony Mann (such as Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River): a man obsessively driven to right a past wrong who finds himself compromising his morality in his pursuit to do so. Haskell is basically a decent guy (we don’t learn much about Vern, other than he’s a lovestruck cowpuncher) who must play the part of a bad man in order to achieve his goal of vengeance, and often at his own peril since he’s in the company of other individuals he can’t trust. While Stewart’s heroes also were ready to be welcomed back into the societal fold after finishing what they set out to do; in Notorious, once Vern achieves his revenge, it’s apparent his life is over and done with — the final frames of the film find him and Frenchy riding off for points unknown, with the narrator singing the final stanzas of a ballad hinting of their eventual demise.
Rancho Notorious’ ballad, “The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck,” was written by Ken Darby (a member of the vocal group The King’s Men, who were regulars on radio’s Fibber McGee & Molly for a time) and sung by William Lee, and it adds a note of Greek tragedy to Lang’s remarkable Western. (The ballad idea was later appropriated for High Noon.) The title of Darby’s composition was originally going to be shared as the title of the film until director Fritz Lang learned from one of Howard Hughes’ lackeys at RKO that the movie would instead be known as Rancho Notorious because “Mr. Hughes doesn’t think they would know what Chuck-a-Luck was in Europe.”
“But they would know what Rancho Notorious is?” Lang fired back as he took his leave of the company man's idiocy.
The production history of Rancho Notorious was troubled from the get-go — Hughes was only a small part of it (the film’s limited budget forced Lang to shoot the Western in the studio, which resulted in some none-too-convincing exterior scenes that hamper the movie’s credibility a tad). Star Marlene Dietrich and director Lang did not get along well at all (despite the two enjoying a brief affair during the making of the film) Lang originally designed Notorious with Marlene in mind, with the original plot centering on an aging saloon girl and an equally up-there outlaw who couldn’t quite cut the mustard anymore. The notoriously (sorry about that) vain Dietrich pooh-poohed that idea, and also bickered with cinematographer Hal Mohr (with whom she had worked on Destry Rides Again) when he was unable to maintain her eternal youth before the camera to her satisfaction. Despite all that foofrah, it’s a great showcase for Marlene; there are many parallels between this role and her portrayal of Frenchy (is it coincidental that both movies feature characters with that name?) in Destry and she also gets to sing a song, “Get Away Young Man.”
Star Arthur Kennedy effortlessly shifts back-and-forth between hero and rotter, and never loses the audience’s sympathy from the start (granted, that would be difficult to do since his girl was raped and murdered by a remorseless dirtbag) despite his later descent into the dark side. He demonstrates a nice rapport with Dietrich’s Altar (so named because she’s worshipped?) even though it’s all show on his part to eventually learn what he needs to know. Mel Ferrer, as the charismatic Frenchy, isn’t quite in the same thespic league as Kennedy but manages to deliver a solid performance…and again, there’s an adoption of an oft-used Anthony Mann theme in that Frenchy serves as Vern’s doppelganger — an example of what Haskell could become in a similar set of circumstances (the two of them riding off together at Notorious’ conclusion reinforces this). Lloyd Gough, the actor who plays the target of Vern Haskell’s obsession, sadly doesn’t even rate a mention in the movie’s opening credits due to his being on the Hollywood “blacklist” (more evidence of Hughes’ meddling). Rancho Notorious also spotlights a first-rate supporting cast of actors familiar (and in some cases, unfamiliar) to Westerns — it’s great to see B-Western and serial veterans such as Lane Chandler, I. Stanford Jolley, Fuzzy Knight (shout-out to a West Virginia homeboy), Pierce Lyden, Kermit Maynard and Francis McDonald on hand. Jack Elam is a treat as one of the bad guys as is reliable Frank Ferguson, who’s a defrocked preacher hiding out at Dietrich’s. The film also showcases one of the rare cinematic turns of George Reeves, whose movie roles would start to dissipate once he became too well-known as TV’s Superman. (If that guy working the chuck-a-luck wheel in Frawley’s saloon looks like a guy who spent three years on a deserted island with six other castaways, that’s because it’s Russell Johnson, in one of his early movie appearances.)
Critics weren’t particularly kind to Rancho Notorious at the time of its release, but with the passage of time the movie has developed a cult following and a reputation as an offbeat but enjoyable Western; it’s an early example of what could be called a feminist Western (with its themes of violation and rape, not to mention the Dietrich character as a strong, fascinating character more than capable of holding her own in “a man’s world”) and much of its titillating sexual content was “liberated” by Nicholas Ray for his film Johnny Guitar, released two years afterward (equating stealing from a woman’s safe as rape, for starters). Scripted by Daniel Taradash (based on a story written by Lang associate Silvia Richards), Notorious manages to overcome its budget limitations and occasional seams-showing to become a film not too easily forgotten — as a critic for Time Out Film Guide once observed: “The fateful moral, the complete avoidance of naturalism, and the integration of an ongoing ballad into the plot, all make the movie quintessential Lang; add an overt political stance and it would be quintessentially Brechtian too.”