1950s, 3/4, Fritz Lang, Review, Western

Rancho Notorious

#19 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

There was a while when I was feeling like Rancho Notorious was going to be a lost gem of Fritz Lang’s career. There were a couple of things that were obviously being set up that could have come together to make something interesting, really interesting. It largely abandons those things by the end for more a generic genre resolution that ignores the implications of most of its character work, choosing to follow the easy narrative path instead of something more challenging. That resolution doesn’t kill the film by any means, it keeps the overall picture entertaining at least, but the potential for more was there.

Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) sets out on a mission of revenge when his fiancée is raped and murdered by a bandit. He comes across one of the duo who committed the robbery, shot in the back by his partner, and all he gets is a word: Chuck-a-Luck. I think time might have helped this movie a bit in this regard because the Chuck-a-Luck game isn’t as commonly known now as it seems to have been in the 50s, so when Vern has no idea what it is and needs to ask everyone around him, we’re part of that journey. His journey takes him from Wyoming down south as he follows the name Chuck-a-Luck and then the name Altar Keane towards the Mexican border. It was about here, as we learned about Keane (Marlene Dietrich) in flashback, that I really felt like something was going on.

Vern was becoming two things: a vessel for revenge and an outsider in a strange land. At the same time, he was pursuing Keane, complete with a history of being driven from one place to another as her appeal diminished over the years (the irony of Dietrich demanding to be filmed as young as possible when she’s playing an older character is unmissable). There’s something that seems to be bringing these two people inexorably towards each other, a rootlessness based on a certain immigrant experience that Lang himself obviously shared. Lost, and alone, they find a community together, removed from the rest of the world around them. In the flashback, Altar meets with a gunslinger Frenchy (Mel Ferrer) who takes her under her wing, and they go off to build a haven for outlaws called Chuck-a-Luck.

Vern finds Frenchy and helps him out of a jam, getting him a pass to visit and stay at Chuck-a-Luck. This jam is an amusing aside about a small town going through a populist election to throw out corrupt elected officials. On the one hand, this feels like a random aside, but on another, it’s a contrast to the quiet life on the ranch. It’s a place where Vern doesn’t fit. He’s become too consumed with his quest for vengeance to care about the niceties of living well in civilized society one way or the other. The outlaw hangout at Chuck-a-Luck ends up fitting him better, especially when he and Altar begin to connect. Neither are criminals at heart, unlike most of the rest of the denizens of the ranch, on the run from the law.

I think I was hoping that the revenge subplot would go away, that Vern would find it necessary to move on without closure on his fiancée’s death and that Altar would be that vessel. Of course, the revenge plot doesn’t go away. The backend of the film is Vern trying to figure out which of the men at the ranch is the man who murdered his girl. He never saw the man’s face, so he has to piece it together with what little pieces of information he can get, the most important being a broach that Altar wears one night, the same broach Vern gave his girl the day of her murder.

The finale is all built around the real killer figuring out who Vern is and why he’s there first, turning the ranch into a shooting match. Like any shooting match that Lang filmed, it’s well done and executed, but it doesn’t seem to follow through on the wonderful promise of the earlier parts of the film. The connection between Vern and Altar ends up becoming something more generic than the specifics implied as we were getting introduced to her. The relationship that develops between Vern and Frenchy is nice as well, offering some interesting wrinkles to the actions of the finale. The ending doesn’t destroy the film, but it just ends it more commonly than expected.

Is this a lost gem of Lang’s career? To some extent. It’s a solidly entertaining revenge flick that flirts with something more. The implications of the life of an outlaw versus life in civilization gets mostly dropped by the end, limited to sporadic lines of dialogue as the film moves towards its inevitable gunfight that resolves most everything.

It’s standard and does it well, but it could have been more.

Rating: 3/4

5 thoughts on “Rancho Notorious”

  1. I thought this movie was just ‘all right’. A C quality B movie. Not A gem, for sure.
    It’s not incompetent, it’s fast moving and Mel Ferrer was the standout for me (though Marlene Dietrich does know how to play an aging whore believably). And I was amused by the politicians getting locked up during an election….God we need more of that today. But there’s no Fritz Lang there, this felt like another hired gun job, maybe with the extra spice of being able to work with Marlene Dietrich at last.

    It also starts to get too ‘Hollywood’ with Frenchie shooting a gun out of a deputy’s hand during their jail break. That was just…so not Fritz Lang. The sloppy shootout at the end is much more Lang-like, but even that was a little too silly with the heroes standing up there blazing away with two guns while the bad guys are sensibly taking cover. I didn’t buy Altar’s change of heart either, or her attraction to Vern. Also, Vern is described as a ‘raw hand with a gun’ but he somehow turns gunslinger.

    The whole movie ends up not being one thing or another. It’s not a family friendly Gene Autry style movie and it’s not a rough and gritty Noir Western. It doesn’t feel like a Fritz Lang movie and lacks artistry and flair. I don’t know who’d I’d recommend this movie to. Someone who wants to kill 90 minutes? Fans of Mel Fererr (all ten of them?) or Marlene Dietrich filmography completionists?

    I didn’t hate it and I didn’t love it. It was lukewarm. Well..it was better than the last one but it’s nowhere near as good as Western Union.

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    1. Truly, not as good as Western Union.

      I guess I see more promise in its first half, the endless search leading to Chuck-a-luck, than you do. The movie doesn’t follow through, but it’s interesting while it lasts.

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