Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Daniel Taradash
Sometimes a movie comes around which just feels very much like its own thing. While perhaps rooted in the tropes that define the genre in which it plays, it still has enough unique values which set it apart. Whether these are good or bad, at the very least the filmmaking team is trying something a little different, and interesting. When you get players such as director Fritz Lang and star Marlene Dietrich, you can begin to understand how a film like Rancho Notorious came to be, and set itself apart. Now, I will hold off on details until later in this review, but suffice it to say Rancho Notorious proves to be a breath of fresh air in how it approaches the Western genre. Not everything need be new and fresh. There are some truly wonderful works which stay within the confines, but a unique entry every now and then is truly welcome.
Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) is happy as can be, he’s set to marry his sweetheart. That is until she is unexpectedly murdered. Her murder sets Vern off on vigilante justice, but his is not swift justice, as he is forced to follow the breadcrumbs, trying to find out exactly what “Chuck-a-luck” is. He soon finds a connection with Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), who was once a saloon performer who has since come to found a safehouse ranch for outlaws named “Chuck-a-luck”. One of her closest allies, Frenchy Fairmount (Mel Ferrer) leads Vern to the ranch, where he must find out which of the bandits being harbored by Altar is the one who killed his fiancee. It’s a delicate balance between his original mission and newfound “friendship” he has developed.
For my money, this film has the best opening line of the marathon to this point. The film opens with Vern and his fiancee kissing, and Vern delivers this great line: “Nothing’s better than that to make a man agreeable.” There is something about that old-fashioned language which is so satisfying to me, and not surprisingly, it sets the tone for what would be a film I greatly appreciate. And speaking of appreciation, Arthur Kennedy, a name I praised in Bend of the River once again delivers the goods, albeit in a slightly different role this time. No longer the villain, Kennedy shows us a passionate good guy with a necessary mean streak, and is once again very entertaining in the role. But overall, the lead trio is very good together, including Marlene Dietrich, a name I haven’t fully appreciated yet.
Of course she is found singing in the early goings, I have to imagine that’s in her contract, although I can’t say I much enjoy her singing voice. But she is very entertaining and fun in this role, a character who is fully fleshed out and easy to root for, even despite some of her cruel intentions. The same can be said about Ferrer’s Frenchy, a likeable bad guy, the type that sits on the fence between good and evil. We’re meant to like them, I believe, and yet they’re also outlaws. There is definitely a distinction between Altar and Frenchy and some of the other shady characters at Chuck-a-luck. And speaking of Chuck-a-luck, since I already mentioned Dietrich’s singing, the theme song really grew on me. I was distracted by it at first, but its beat became a part of the rhythm of the film.
Lastly, Fritz Lang seems the perfect director for such a film. He brings in some of his noir style chops to create mystery and intrigue, and marries it with his action/suspense chops learned from The Return of Frank James, another western entry which I was fond of. Some of the action actually feels ahead of its time, perhaps because of the fast cuts and pacing. Overall, Rancho Notorious benefits from a swift feeling pace, fully developed characters, and a penchant to push the boundary and create some of the more unique and memorable moments from this marathon. Sure, there is risk in upsetting the balance of the genre by reaching out on a limb and defying convention, but sometimes you can just create your own celebrated space too. That’s what this film does.