Rancho Notorious Review
Though it opens with a kiss framed in close-up, any hopes of Rancho Notorious being a conventional love story are thrown swiftly out of the window as it descends into “the old tale of hate, murder and revenge” (to quote Ken Darby’s ‘Legend of Chuck-a-Luck’ which acts as continuing a ballad-like narration). The female half of the embrace is brutally slain in a bungled robbery, leaving Arthur Kennedy to seek out the perpetrator, a pursuit that leads him first to charismatic outlaw Mel Ferrer and then to ex-saloon girl Marlene Dietrich.
So if not a conventional love story, then a conventional tale of revenge perhaps? Rancho Notorious isn’t this either, in fact of the three Westerns directed by Fritz Lang (the other two being The Return of Frank James and Western Union) this is easily the most flamboyant, the most oddball. Made in 1952, it came at a time when the director was deeply ensconced in film noir territory, either side of it being Clash By Night, The Big Heat, The Blue Gardenia and Human Desire, his remake of Renoir’s La Bête humaine. And it is noir which informs this Western to far greater extent than any of the more familiar genre tropes. What’s especially interesting is the fact that despite the revenge trajectory, Rancho Notorious sees Kennedy growing darker and more ambiguous as he hooks up with Ferrer. Whereas most Westerns see the former outlaw moving towards some kind of redemption (Man of the West, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven), here we have the complete opposite; not only is Kennedy an anti-hero, he’s also anti-redemption.
Understandably then, Rancho Notorious is more of a character study than an action flick. Set pieces are kept to a minimum (though there’s a terrifically edgy barbershop brawl early on) and the actors are kept to the fore. As Kennedy embarks on his journey into the heart of darkness he comes across a veritable rogue’s gallery of society’s exiles alongside Ferrer and Dietrich. She runs a Western-equivalent YMCA named Chuck-a-Luck (the rancho of the title) which serves as a hideout for various outlaw types to indulge gambling, drinking and looting away from the watchful eye of the authorities as long as she gets her 10% cut. There’s a welcome depth to these figures and lack of reliance on stock types (Lang having explored criminal underworlds since the silent days with the first of his Mabuse pics before moving on to M and the film noirs) with Jack Elam, of course, being a standout. But then the casting has also been judicious so as to ensure that nobody outweighs Dietrich and her star power. After all, who today could reel of a list of films starring either Ferrer or Kennedy?
Yet if Rancho Notorious has a flaw then it undoubtedly lies with Dietrich. She’d had success in Westerns before with George Marshall’s delightful Destry Rides Again, but here she’s strangely distanced and a little stilted. There’s none of the iconic treatment lavished on her by Josef von Sternberg throughout the thirties (or by Maximilian Schell in his 1984 documentary Marlene) and as such it constantly feels as though something is missing - especially as her character has a borderline mythical status and is known only a select few and via word of mouth. She does scrape through courtesy of her past associations (her musical numbers recalling The Blue Angel and Morocco) but she’s hardly the dynamic presence as captured by both Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in that other classic female-centric Western, Johnny Guitar. And yet, perhaps the fault is mine - after all, if there’s one Western that is difficult to live up to then its Johnny Guitar
Of Optimum’s various Western releases to date, Rancho Notorious is undoubtedly the most disappointing. Again there are no extras, and in this case the presentation is decidedly poor. Though in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the print is in less than perfect condition. The colours are on the muted side, whilst the grain results in some highly visible artefacting at points. There’s also intermittent damage which ranges from the minor to the truly distracting. Of course, what makes this especially disappointing is the fact that any Dietrich film must have an excellent presentation as the photography is often so important. Thankfully, the soundtrack fares better with only the occasional pop and one particularly noisy reel change.