Rancho Notorious December 28, 2016
Few directors know how to use Marlene Dietrich as well as the iconoclastic Josef Von Sternberg (who famously collaborated with the actress an astonishing seven times), so impressive it is that Fritz Lang emphasizes her assets, both physical and artistic, gloriously in the otherwise routine Western romp Rancho Notorious (1952).
The film, arguably working as filler for a filmmaker usually on the more aspirational side of the cinematic spectrum, stars the sympathetic Arthur Kennedy as Vern Haskell, a man driven by revenge after his fiancee (Gloria Henry) is brutally killed in the midst of a store robbery. To his luck, Vern finds one of the men shot in the back by his accomplice fairly early within the limits of the movie’s introduction. Problem is is that the only clue to the second perpetrator’s identity is his partner in crime’s dying words, which are, initially indecipherably, “Chuck-a-luck.”
Following a long bout of hazy investigation is it finally revealed that all is connected to an illicit horse ranch run by the slinky Altar Keane (Dietrich), a former saloon singer who went from object to business owner after a coincidental win in a life-or-death Chuck-a-luck game. The hideout serving as the place of living for a number of diverse outlaws mapping out their next moves, it only makes sense for Vern to spot the man he's looking for within minutes of becoming another one of Altar’s scuzzy guests. But when a love triangle between Vern, Altar, and gunslinger Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) flavors the already tense environment in a shady move by Vern to get closer to the culprit he’s so desperately seeking, stakes become higher and outcomes become less obvious.
At times taking on the tone of a detective movie (in no doubt is Vern’s scrutinization of the situation at the forefront of the film like something of a weirdly effective Western noir), Rancho Notorious is novel but painlessly fun, a colorful lark so pleasantly escapist it perhaps turns the making of a popcorn movie into an art. Its sets are unabashedly economic and its performances are more two-dimensionally sufficient than they are impactful, but we wouldn’t expect anything less from a movie so concerned with our having a good time. Important is our getting lost in the world that is its Technicolored, romantically dangerous Wyoming, and Lang knows enough about theatrical transportation better than anyone.
But, of course, Rancho Notorious wouldn’t be such a remarkable picture without Dietrich. A robust fifty-one and at her most beautiful, Dietrich uses her schtick like a weapon. At this point in her career had the actress played dozens of powerful, almost melodramatically exotic bombshells, but Lang uses her in such a way which feels natural rather than forced — in her worst vehicles does she appear as a fish out of water, a slab of shlock placed where she doesn’t necessarily belong. But everything about Dietrich’s Altar Keane is just about right. Coy, formidable, and certainly able to drink with the boys, her performance is among her most memorable; she’s in command of her powers and is noticeably enjoying herself. In a film wherein her leading men can hardly hold a candle to her angled features, that’s a hell of a good thing. B