In a romantic opening scene Vern Haskell (Kennedy) and his fiancee Beth (Gloria Henry) fantasize about their upcoming marriage and life together. But their dreams soon turn to tragedy when Vern finds Beth murdered and defiled by a thief who has fled town on horseback. For the next year Vern embarks on a relentless mission to find the murderer, traveling from town to town. Vern eventually hooks up with refined bandit Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) who leads him to the ranch where the murderer hides. A kind of sleepaway camp for thieves, rapists and miscreants, Chuck-A-Luck (named for the vertical gambling wheel that decides a gambler's fate) is overseen by a tough-talking, former dance hall queen - barroom chanteuse and legendary beauty Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich). A sultry housemother to the assorted bad boys, Altar offers her tenants sanctuary in exchange for a cut of their criminal profits. It is at Chuck-A-Luck where Vern will use every resource available to him - including his seductive power over Altar - to find Beth's killer.
From its opening act of a young, beautiful girl raped by a lawless bandit ("she wasn't spared anything," the town doctor bluntly pronounces), Rancho Notorious establishes an undercurrent of sexual licentiousness that may explain why this genre picture, considered something of a disaster upon its 1952 release, has since become a revered cult classic.
As Vern moves closer to the mystery of Altar Keane and her possible connection to his dead fiancee, he uncovers a woman of almost otherworldly seductiveness, but with a man's strength and grit. Altar is introduced in an outrageously racy flashback astride one of her saloon customers as she and her fellow dance hall entertainers engage in a "horse race" on their customers' backs. Vern finds Altar once again in the driver's seat at Chuck-A-Luck, where the flinty-yet-feminine mistress has beguiled her devoted lover Frenchy and holds the other resident bandits rapt with adoration as she entertains them with her barroom ditties. Like Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1954), Altar is a memorably empowered Western heroine who manages to play with the boys without losing her ability to arouse. As perverse as Rancho Notorious's sexual innuendo is the film's tampering with the notion of movie heroism. A protagonist who becomes more and more like the criminals he hunts, Vern transforms from a simple lovestruck cowpoke into a vengeance-crazed outlaw who will do anything to avenge the murder of his fiancee.
Rancho Notorious was the third and last of Fritz Lang's forays into the Western, a genre Dietrich biographer Donald Spoto says Lang permanently altered as "the father of the psychological Western." While Western Union (1941) and The Return of Frank James (1940) enjoyed some success, the obviously fake studio backdrops and often wooden performances of Rancho Notorious did not entice audiences of the day. Even Lang was disappointed with the ultimately cheap look of the film. Despite the hard work of his Man Hunt (1941) production designer Wiard Ihnen, who "knew about backdrops and perspectives," Lang admitted "it was not good and it was badly lit anyway."
Though defined by outward signs of the Western: horses, two-bit towns, outlaws and sheriffs, Rancho Notorious is more memorable as an archetypal Fritz Lang film than a classic Western. Concerned with the inalterability of fate and a character transformed by hatred and marked by an often cold, aloof style, Rancho Notorious follows a tradition of Lang films where broken men confront a corrupt society, as in Fury (1936) and The Big Heat (1953). The bleak themes of Rancho Notorious and Lang's apparently exacting, autocratic directing style took a clear toll on the film's cast. Though Lang claimed that the film was created as a vehicle for Dietrich, the star bristled at his conception of Altar as an "an aging (but still very desirable) dance-hall girl." At age 50, but still luminously beautiful, the actress was clearly not yet able to think of herself as past her prime, while Lang argued "Marlene resented going gracefully into a little, tiny bit older category." Dietrich, a reported former lover of Lang's, quarreled so energetically with Lang over her depiction in the film that the two were no longer speaking to each other by the time the production wrapped.
As usual, Dietrich performs several memorable songs in the picture in her typical smoky drawl, like the sultry "Get Away Young Man," a number she also performed at various publicity stops for Rancho Notorious, wowing audiences by appearing in the flesh to promote the picture.
Producer: Howard Welsch
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Daniel Taradash, based on a story "Gunsight Whitman" by Sylvia Richards
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Production Design: Wiard Ihnen
Music: Emil Newman
Principal Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Altar Keane), Arthur Kennedy (Vern Haskell), Mel Ferrer (Frenchy Fairmont), Lloyd Gough (Kinch), Gloria Henry (Beth), William Frawley (Baldy Gunder), Lisa Ferraday (Maxine), Jack Elam (Mort Geary), George Reeves (Wilson).
C-90m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster