' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Rancho Notorious (1952)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Rancho Notorious (1952)

“It began, they say, one summer’s day / When the sun was blazing down / ‘Twas back in the early Seventies / In a little Wyoming town.” This are a few of the lines from the balladeer who appears at a couple of intervals over Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious”, sounding much less like Tex Ritter in “High Noon” than Jonathan Richman in “There’s Something About Mary.” In other words, the film never quite feels like an authentic western; it feels like a put-on of a western. The obviously studio-bound sets contribute mightily to this artificiality. Perhaps the phoniness of the production was mandated by producers rather than Lang, but even if that’s true it would seem Lang found a way to employ the shoddy stages as a means to illuminate the shoddiness of the myths so prevalent in the western genre.


Consider the lovey-dovey passage that opens the film wherein Vern Haskell gifts his darlin’ a brooch from Paris. This is so overtly sentimentalized it can only be a feint. It is. His darlin’ is promptly killed. Not just killed, in fact, but raped. It’s brutal. And the outlaw responsible, Kinch, steals the brooch and high-tails it out of town. When Vern gets word, his eyes narrow and he forms a posse. They ride off, the others quickly bail, and Vern winds up going it alone, a vigilante. And so it would seem “Rancho Notorious” is intent on setting itself up as another western where it’s men in a man’s world, women left to cower in doorframes ahead of the big shootout or on stages singing songs to the delight of catcalling jackanapses with six-shooters. That, however, is merely another feint.

The clue on which Vern’s quest turns is the name Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), a one-time saloon girl and now proprietor of a strange-sounding place called Chuck-a-Luck, the titular Rancho Notorious. To find Hinch, Vern has to find Chuck-a-Luck. To find Chuck-a-Luck, Vern has to find Altar Keane. Chuck-a-Luck turns out to be a akin to an old west version of the Hotel Continental in “John Wick.” That, you might recall, was an upscale resort catering exclusively to assassins, a place where no business was allowed, where killers simply hobknobbed over cocktails and laid low. Rancho Notorious – or Chuck-a-Luck, if you prefer – is a ranch near the Mexico border populated entirely by western movie-ish villains on the run and hiding out. It’s a place where the one rule is “no questions.” It’s like the Bizarro version of Tunstall’s Ranch in “Young Guns”, where rather than reading literature after dinner, they sit around the gaming table and place bets while having drinks.

To gain access to this bad guy Shangri-La, Vern poses as a bad guy himself. As you might suspect, he takes to the part almost too well. So affable in that opening scene, he becomes increasingly hardened, even frenzied, practically frothing at the mouth in certain shots with unholy rage at this pack of god-awful rascals. But it’s not just their cold-bloodedness. After all, he firmly intends to cold-bloodedly kill Kinch. No, something more sinister emerges.


There’s an extraordinarily discomforting sequence in which we watch Vern watch the bevy of males watch Altar. It’s two levels of the male gaze. At first, it seems evident that Vern is disgusted by their lecherousness. But then it becomes reasonable to suspect that some twisted sense of jealously plays a part. Finally, whiffs of self-loathing are detected. Vern, after all, has transformed into the very sort of person he has come to kill, and to kill that person he gains the trust of Altar by demonstrating false affection. Is it false? Well, probably not as much as he tells himself, and when he comes clean, he erupts into a rage, slapping her around, telling her she's no good in not such nice terms.

Per TCM, the grand German dame Dietrich was at such blistering odds with Lang that by the end of production they were no longer communicating. He saw her character as a fading, aged starlet; Dietrich saw no such thing. Thus, the leading lady went behind her director’s back to communicate with the lighting and wardrobe departments, crafting her character in her own image. It might have made for a hellish atmosphere on set, yet it’s entirely apropos to her character. A one-time saloon girl, we see in flashback where she is fired by the establishment’s proprietor, apparently for not smiling enough. It’s like an earlier version of the moronic men’s right activists who berate women on the street for not smiling when they are ogled and cat-called. And so at Chuck-a-Luck, she’s in charge of her destiny. Or so she thinks.

No, in the end, her destiny is decided by the men all around her, a two-layered slice of male control in which Altar is eventually forced to submit to Vern's forcible rage and Dietrich is forced to submit to Lang's story orchestration. As an actress, the charismatic German-American could fight for the visuals all she wanted, but her character's fate nonetheless remained sealed. She dies, and that should not be a spoiler, because this is a western, and even in a western principally centered on a woman, the guys get to have all the fun.

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