Cast & Crew
Moments after her fiancé, cowboy Vern Haskell, presents her with a jewel-studded brooch and rides out of town, Beth Forbes is raped and killed in her father's general store by an outlaw named Kinch, who also steals the brooch. Upon seeing his slain sweetheart, Vern seethes with outrage and joins the sheriff's posse. Although the posse stops pursuing Kinch and his cohort, Whitey, when it reaches the boundary of its jurisdiction, Vern, bent on revenge, pushes on alone. Not wanting to share his loot, Kinch, meanwhile, shoots Whitey, then leaves him for dead. Soon after, Vern finds Whitey and demands to know where Kinch has gone, but Whitey can only mutter the word "chuck-a-luck" before expiring. Sure that chuck-a-luck, a casino game, is the key to finding Kinch, Vern queries a barber about it. The man in the next chair overhears Vern and, once alone with him, nervously asks why he wants to know about chuck-a-luck. When Vern refuses to say, the man jumps him, and a vicious fight ensues, ending in the man's death. Vern is arrested, but is released after the sheriff learns that the man, Ace Maguire, was a wanted outlaw. Free but still clueless, Vern then undertakes to discover the whereabouts of Altar Keane, a name mentioned by Ace during the fight. His inquiries eventually lead him to Baldy Gunder, a former saloon owner for whom Altar once worked. The down-and-out Baldy tells Vern about his last encounter with Altar, a former belle of the West: After Baldy fires her for not smiling enough, Altar decides to gamble her last pay on chuck-a-luck. Because the croupier thinks she is shilling, Altar wins big on two tries. Baldy intercedes, but to keep his crooked operation from being exposed, allows her one last bet. At that moment, handsome gunslinger Frenchy Fairmont steps in and insists on spinning the chuck-a-luck wheel himself. Frenchy also manipulates the wheel, and Altar wins a huge sum. Frenchy then persuades Altar to run away with him. Back in the present, Baldy reveals that, while Altar's whereabouts are unknown, Frenchy is now in the Gunsight jail. To meet Frenchy, Vern gets himself arrested on election day and, when Gunsight's crooked sheriff frees some corrupt, incarcerated politicians, Vern takes advantage of the commotion and helps Frenchy to escape. Grateful, Frenchy takes Vern to a secluded horse ranch near the Mexican border, which is run by Altar. After a wary Altar explains to Vern the ranch's "no questions" rule, she introduces him to a group of outlaws who use the ranch, called Chuck-a-Luck, as a hideout. Vern is immediately suspicious of outlaw Wilson, as he is an unabashed ladies man and has a scar down his cheek. Kinch, in turn, has uneasy feelings about the curious newcomer. On the night of her birthday, Altar startles Vern when she appears in a fancy gown, adorned with Beth's brooch. Before Vern can act on his discovery, Marshal Donaldson and Deputy Warren arrive at the ranch, looking for Frenchy. The outlaws manage to hide, and Vern cleverly deflects the lawmen's suspicions. Vern then flirts with Altar, who has since removed her jewels, and kisses her. Later, after Vern shows off the shooting skills he learned from Frenchy, Frenchy informs Altar that he is planning a bank robbery. Altar begs Frenchy not to involve Vern, who she senses is not a hardened criminal, but Frenchy is noncommittal. Kinch then realizes who Vern is when he sees him get on his horse using the same unusual mounting technique he observed outside Beth's general store. Kinch resolves to kill Vern and volunteers to act as a sniper during the robbery. Kinch then convinces Frenchy to bring the unsuspecting Vern along and shoots at him as he is exiting the bank. The shot misses Vern, but a gunfight erupts, and the surviving outlaws are forced to scatter. Later, Vern returns alone to Chuck-a-Luck with Altar's share, and she finally gives in to her attraction. At Vern's urging, Altar dons her gown and jewels and reveals that Kinch sold her the brooch. Enraged, Vern tells her about Beth's murder and rips the brooch off her dress. Vern then finds Kinch at a border cantina and challenges him to a gunfight. Outmatched, Kinch refuses to draw, but before Vern forces the issue, the sheriff shows up. After the bartender confirms that Kinch admitted to Beth's murder, the sheriff arrests Kinch. Meanwhile, a wounded Frenchy arrives at Chuck-a-Luck to find Altar packed and ready to depart. Altar turns the ranch over to Frenchy without explanation, but denies that she is running away with Vern. Just then, Wilson and the other outlaws ride up with Kinch, having freed him from the sheriff, and demand money from Altar for betraying their trust with Vern. A tense showdown ensues, until Vern appears, taking them all by surprise. In a flash, Frenchy kills Kinch, while Vern's quick draw fells Wilson. The remaining outlaws surrender, but after Frenchy orders them to leave, he and Vern discover that Altar took a bullet meant for Frenchy. Altar dies in Frenchy's arms, and now alone, Frenchy rides off with Vern.
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
Go away and come back ten years ago.- Altar Keane
Cinematographer Hal Mohr, who had previously photographed Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939) attempted to resign from the film due to Dietrich's insistence that he achieve for her greater youth-through-lighting than he felt possible.
Director 'Fritz Lang' had originally planned to call this film "Chuck-a-Luck". However, the studio insisted that its name be changed to "Rancho Notorious" and when Lang asked why, he was told that it was because Americans wouldn't understand what "Chuck-a-Luck" (a gambling game commonly played in saloons in the Southwest) meant. Lang replied, "Well, it's a good thing that they all know what 'Rancho Notorious'[which has nothing to do with anything in the film] means!"
The working title of this film was Chuck-a-Luck. An unidentified, contemporary source in the AMPAS Library production file for the film lists the title of Silvia Richards' screen story as "Gunsight Whitman." In a modern interview, director Fritz Lang claimed that RKO head Howard Hughes changed the title from Chuck-a-Luck to Rancho Notorious because he felt that European audiences would not be familiar with the casino game. The ballad "The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck" is heard over the opening credits and intermittently throughout the picture, and its lyrics comment on the action of the story. Rancho Notorious was the first American film to use a song in this manner. Although Lang recalled in the modern interview that the picture was shot on the General Service Studios lot, Hollywood Reporter production charts and news items indicate that it was filmed at the Motion Picture Center Studios. According to Lang, Republic Studios' Western street was also used.
According to Daily Variety news items, Twentieth Century-Fox originally was to distribute the film. Fidelity Pictures, which was in need of cash after spending $900,000 on the production, backed out of the deal when it learned that Fox would not release or pay for the film until 1952. In mid-1951, RKO paid Fidelity between $700,000 and $780,000 in advance for distribution rights. Daily Variety notes that Hughes approved the sale in part because it featured one of his contract stars, Mel Ferrer. An October 1951 Variety news item states that RKO also agreed to give Fox a sixteen percent interest in the picture's profits. According to the same item, Lang and stars Marlene Dietrich and Arthur Kennedy protested the sale, because they feared that additional production costs incurred by RKO would lead to the loss of their partially deferred salaries, which could not be paid out until the film showed a 2.5 million dollar profit.
In the modern interview, Lang commented that Rancho Notorious "was conceived for Marlene Dietrich" as a picture "about an ageing (but still very desirable) dance hall girl." According to Lang, Dietrich "resented going gracefully into a little, tiny bit older category" and fought with the director throughout the production. Lang also noted that after he delivered his cut of the picture, the "producer" re-edited the film without Lang's approval. Another modern source notes that because actor Lloyd Gough, who plays "Kinch" in the picture, refused to answer questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, his name was removed from the screen credits by Hughes.
Released in United States May 1989
Released in United States Spring March 1952
Shown at Film Forum in New York City May 16 & 17, 1989.
Released in United States Spring March 1952
Released in United States May 1989 (Shown at Film Forum in New York City May 16 & 17, 1989.)