Rancho Notorious (1952)

Synopsis:

After his fiancee is brutally raped and murdered by a bandit, cowhand Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy, Peyton Place) sets out to find the man responsible for the death of his beloved sweetheart. Haskell manages to track down the killer to a “notorious” ranch, the strangely named “Chuck-a-luck”, owned by an ex-saloon singer, the tough-as-nails Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Correctly described by most connoisseurs of cinema as a western noir, Rancho Notorious channels the peculiar sensibilities of its German émigré director Fritz Lang — this dark tale of revenge, greed, hate and lust was shot in Hollywood, but its mindset and style reminded me of the German Expressionism of the 1920s.

Written by Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) from an original story by Silvia Richards, Rancho Notorious was the last of the three westerns made by director Lang (M and Fury), who is mostly known for his crime dramas. Lang sorts of ignore the fact that he is in the old west and proceeds as if he was making one of his psychological noirs. The end result is a fascinating amalgamation of post-war anxieties and frontier myths. There is also an interesting reinvention of gender codes that makes the movie feel modern (Fifty-something Dietrich got all men by their … spurs!)

Rancho Notorious is filled with oddities that will delight the curious and adventurous. The film begins with a series of flashbacks, an interesting narrative technique to say the least. Dietrich is introduced “riding” a drunk man during a bizarre saloon contest. The theme song, “Legend of Chuck-A-Luck” sung by Bill Lee, is used throughout the movie as a chorus commenting on the action. And the film has no squeaky-clean heroes — every single character has big flaws. All of these elements make the movie highly watchable.

Hal Mohr’s (Captain Blood and Destry Rides Again) Technicolor cinematography proved that color, when used properly, can suggest gloom and doom as well as a shadowy black and white cinematography. Primary colors are manipulated in such a way that you feel that the characters are trapped inside a bag of skittles. The stylized sets reinforce the idea that the film is projecting the dark subconscious of the characters — it is all very Freudian.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

There was something really interesting happening to westerns in the 1950s. Winchester ’73 (1950), The Gunfighter (1950), High Noon (1952), Garden of Evil (1954), Johnny Guitar (1954), etc., they all deal with troubled characters and existential themes. Rancho Notorious clearly belongs to this group of westerns eager to explore the tropes of the genre. Lang’s Technicolor mood piece is not a masterpiece, but it offers plenty of goodies to viewers hungry for something deep and thought-provoking. Color, 93 minutes, Not Rated.

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