Rancho Notorious (1952)- Fritz Lang



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. Rancho Notorious (1952)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 gaveRancho Notorious (1952) 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. Rancho Notorious (!952)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, Rancho Notorious (!952)“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.

8 thoughts on “Rancho Notorious (1952)- Fritz Lang

    • Paul says:

      That completely makes sense to me. It is such a different kind of western, comparatively anyway; particularly for 1952. Looking back today, it has a darker, more relatable element that makes it something special to behold.


  1. R.A. Kerr says:

    1. Fritz Lang as a director of Westerns? Who knew!
    2. Arthur Kennedy is criminally underrated.
    3. I bet Marlene is FAB-U-LOUS in this role.

    This is another one I really must see. Thanks for posting this review!


    • Paul says:

      Fritz Lang also directed “The Return of Frank James” with Henry Fonda and “Western Union” with Randolph Scott. They are very real, dark western in my opinion. The kind of thing that Nicholas Ray would have made around the same time as “Johnny Guitar”.

      Why doesn’t everybody know and love Kennedy?!?! He is so fantastic. Is it because he excelled as a supporting actor instead of a leading man? Still, everybody seems to love Claude Rains, and he is better known as a supporting actor. It’s just insane.

      Marlene is fabulous here, although I think she’s fabulous in everything.


  2. The Lady Eve says:

    My only issue with “Rancho Notorious” has been that silly “Chuck-a-Luck” theme song – which sounds like pure camp to me. But the movie is fascinating. I’m a great fan of Marlene’s, will watch her in anything, and admire Arthur Kennedy (happened to catch him in”Nevada Smith” this afternoon on getTV)…Mel Ferrer – that’s another story. I’ve always wanted to see “Rancho Notorious” back-to-back with “Johnny Guitar” – what an interesting double feature that would be.

    In the meantime, I’m going to watch “Rancho Notorious” again with your review in mind.


    • Paul says:

      At first I laughed so hard through the song, I had to go back and actually listen to all the words in order to understand all the backstory. The funny thing is that the moment the song ends, it becomes a serious movie rather quickly. If I remember correctly, the original title was even “Chuck-a-Luck”. Wow. That might have killed the whole thing!

      I would watch that double feature in a heartbeat!


  3. Orson says:

    Have to admit this is a film I must check out, as I wasn’t familiar with it, nor with Fritz Lang “with spurs.” As a fan of latter Dietrich, this suddenly becomes a must watch.

    I also agree with your perspective on the dynamic Arthur Kennedy. He definitely had the chops to be a leading man but was so darn good in supporting roles. A very underappreciated talent.


    • Paul says:

      I like the term “Fritz Lang with Spurs”. It sounds like a great title for a film. I do recommend this one, especially for Dietrich and Kennedy fans. It’s well worth the time.


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