Fritz Lang films are so serious- even his westerns. His colorful, energetic tale, “Rancho Notorious,” (1952) illustrates just that, as what you might expect to be a light-hearted western with a couple of musical numbers, is actually more of a gritty, heartless tale of murder and revenge… with a couple of musical numbers.
The story opens in a small Wisconsin town where cattleman Vern (Arthur Kennedy) is saying goodbye to his fiance (Gloria Henry), before heading out to drive a herd of cattle. Moments after he leaves, Kinch (Lloyd Gough) robs her store. While she is emptying the safe, however, Kinch becomes more interested in the girl’s body and he proceeds to have his way with her, and then kills her when she screams for help. Upon his frantic return, Vern watches his fiance die, and he vows revenge, heading off with the impossible task of figuring out the identity of the killer.
Through a series of fortunate circumstances, Vern follows a trail that leads him to an outlaw named Frenchy (Mel Ferrer), who proceeds to take Vern to “Chuck-a-Luck”- a hideout for outlaws that is run by Altar (Marlene Dietrich). He discovers that the man who has murdered his girl is there (or at least has been there) recently, having gifted Alter a brooch that was stolen from his girl’s body. Vern decides to warm up to Alter, to try to find out who gave her the brooch, even at the risk of aggravating Frenchy, who has always been Altar’s man.
Lang, somewhat unexpectedly, makes a good western director. His other films always have a darker side, and by incorporating that into a colorful early 1950’s western mold, he is able to create a film that is more than entertaining- it’s real. This isn’t a good versus evil story; it’s a human examination into how far someone will go in the obsession of revenge. In this story Vern doesn’t just want to bring his mystery man to justice- he wants someone to understand the pain and anguish that he has suffered. He’s not afraid of anything or anybody. He would do absolutely anything to achieve his final goal of finding, not redemption, but soul-blackening vengeance for what has transpired.
Arthur Kennedy is the very definition of an underrated actor. He is a five time Academy Award nominee, yet many people have overlooked his career almost completely, but not because he’s not talented. It’s because he so often excelled in supporting roles, without ever making a name for himself as a leading man. In “Rancho Notorious” he is perfectly cast, and he holds nothing back in a performance that showcases his ability to be dark and determined, while still keeping the audience in his corner.
Marlene Dietrich was also in an interesting place in her career when she undertook this film. Her leading lady days (whether she knew it or not) were done. After a few less than great performances, “Rancho Notorious” gives Marlene the chance to transition into a supporting capacity that would continue in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958), and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961). These may not be her best films or performances, but they do showcase her range as an actress when her famous sex appeal was behind her. She (as the misguided matriarch) even gets the best lines in this film like, “I wish you’d go away, and come back ten years ago”. She makes everything feel and sound so genuine, and you can’t help but love her for taking a role that was completely different for her.
“Rancho Notorious” has some flaws, mostly coming from the sound stage landscapes, but push all of that aside and see the film for the character driven piece that is under the surface. It feels real, unfiltered, and even gives off a sense of dread and despair, instead of glorifying the west. Just in case that sounds like too much for an evening, don’t worry. There are a couple of light-hearted Dietrich songs, an opening credits “Chuck-a-Luck” number, as well as a barroom race scene, that all are quite funny, just to show that Lang has a softer, humorous side as well.