© 2013 William Ahearn
One could wonder why – after having pissed off Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht – Fritz Lang would work with what was the brightest remaining light of the Weimar era. Marlene Dietrich and Lang didn’t know each other in Berlin. They had met on the set of “Liliom” in Paris when Dietrich visited Charles Boyer. They had become friends in Hollywood and that friendship had survived the contretemps with Jean Gabin during “Moontide.” After the “Moontide” fiasco, Dietrich had alerted Lang to a libelous article about Lang in a French newspaper and Lang successfully sued the publication.
“[‘Rancho Notorious’],” Lang told Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang In America, “was conceived for Marlene Dietrich. I liked her very much. I was very fond of her once . . . I wanted to write a picture about an aging – but still very desirable – dance hall girl and an old gun hand who is not so good on the draw any more. So, I constructed this story.”
In Dietrich, Lang found his doppelganger: A fading legend with a will of steel living off the fumes of her own mythology. How each envisioned the other isn’t half as important as how they envisioned themselves and Dietrich wasn’t hearing about playing an “aging” dance hall girl. To boot, Dietrich kept evoking Josef von Sternberg and would argue with Lang about lighting and camera setups. Lang became so “abusive” toward Dietrich that Director of Photography Hal Mohr tried to quit the production. Mohr and Dietrich had worked together on “Destry Rides Again” and when Mohr wasn’t trying to quit, Lang was trying to get him fired. “We never talked to each other,” Mohr said of Lang, “we just went ahead and did the work.” Lang and Dietrich were no longer talking, as well.
Dietrich’s complaint – among many – was the same as so many actors before her: “Everything is constructed in his head, even before the actors appear, and he does not make any concession. I believe an actor cannot give his full measure unless he is free.”
Lang even had a falling out with the writer and this is the only film that Lang conjured and brought to fruition. Silvia Richards and Lang were parting ways – Richards would testify as a “friendly” at the House Un-American Activities hearing and that led to her divorce from Robert L Richards and she then stopped writing and married A. I. Bezzerides – and she sold her interest in the script to Lang for one US dollar. Daniel Taradash was hired to replace her and after the film was finished, Lang took credit for the “Chuck-A-Luck” song idea. Taradash remembers it quite differently and while many have asserted that “Rancho Notorious” was the first to use a song in that way, even that is disputed.
In Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, author Patrick McGilligan writes that Steven Bach wrote that “Rancho Notorious” helped make Lang “the father of the psychological Western.” Actually, Bach didn’t write that. What Bach wrote in Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend was that Lang was “regarded” as the father of the psychological Western and it’s clear that Bach is referring to Lotte Eisner as the one who is regarding Lang as such. In The Western, authors George N Fenin and William K Everson mention “Rancho Notorious” twice in passing: once to remark about Fred Graham’s “bloody and singularly unmotivated” brawl with Arthur Kennedy, and then about the brutality and using “a sixteen millimeter camera . . . in and out of the fight scenes in order to capture candidly all the bloody highlights.”
Bach also described Lang as “the object of an intense cult” that was initially “chaired” by Lotte Eisner. And adding, “In America Lang never regained the near godlike culture status of his days in Berlin, but he made genre films as good as they get. [. . .] His later melodramas like ‘The Big Heat’ and ‘Human Desire’ . . . are tightly controlled and utterly lifeless, though greatly admired by those who admire them.” One could dismiss Bach’s description of Lang as Bach taking sides and defending Dietrich if his assessment weren’t so true.
Joseph Horowitz – writes in Artists In Exile – “[Marlene Dietrich’s] worst movies included ‘Rancho Notorious’ (1951), in which Fritz Lang (an ex-lover) tried revisiting the ‘Destry [Rides Again]’ story without a sense of humor.”
In “A Very Notorious Ranch, Indeed: Fritz Lang, Allegory, and the Holocaust,” published in Journal of Contemporary Thought, Walter Metz argues “for an expanded sense of how the Holocaust appeared in mainstream American cinema before ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ (1959). By using allegorical analysis, I suggest that the collision of Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich in ‘Rancho Notorious’ (1954) strangely houses the post-Auschwitz world in the American Western.”
“In the scene,” Metz explains, “[where] Vern [Arthur Kennedy], the American, directly confronts Altar, the German, with an exposé of the atrocities that Chuck-a-Luck as concentration camp hides. The odd fact that Altar is played by a seemingly anachronistic German exile, Marlene Dietrich, begins to [make] sense given the allegorical frame. Vern forces Altar – the leader of the ranch yet one purportedly innocent about the wealth was coming from – to face up to her complicity in mass murder . . . Altar personifies those German citizens who purported to not be aware of what was going on in their own backyards.”
Metz does state, “In producing this allegorical reading of ‘Rancho Notorious,’ I do not wish to suggest that this is the only, or even best, meaning of the film.”
In The Western Reader, Pam Cook’s essay “Women and the Western” states: “Occasionally, the duplicitous heroine takes on a more sympathetic, tragic hue. In Fritz Lang’s extraordinary Brechtian Western, ‘Rancho Notorious’ (1952), the hero Vern’s obsession with avenging the death of his wife [sic] turns him into a ruthless, inhuman monster whose sadistic attitude toward the woman, Altar Keane, whom he believes holds the secret to his wife’s murder, turns out to be an error of judgment with dire consequences. [. . .] Partly because of the distancing techniques . . . this is one of a few Westerns in which the overriding male perspective is brought into question: Altar is explicitly seen as a victim of Vern’s need to project on to an external image his own violent, destructive urges. In ‘Rancho Notorious,’ women are finally evacuated from the scene completely, as Vern and Frenchy ride off together.”
In The Films of Fritz Lang, Tom Gunning writes “Rancho Notorious” – and “Moonfleet” – “would repay a more detailed study than I can give them in this work, since they deviate explicitly from my central theme of modernity.” That may be, but “Rancho Notorious” and “Moonfleet” always deviate explicitly from central themes about Fritz Lang and in the case of “Rancho Notorious” that deviance can’t be sloughed off as one of Lang’s “conformist” works or that he was assigned a completed script and merely worked as a contract director. At the risk of sounding completely insane, “Rancho Notorious” is the singular “Langian” film that Lang made in Hollywood. It is certainly the film closest to the sensibility of his German films and where critics seem to get lost is confusing Lang’s technique that can take an insipid adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear – with a tacked on happy ending – and make it a riveting film with Lang’s personal vision of how the world works as made only too clear in his German films – that he has already repudiated.
Whether it’s the questioning of the “overriding male perspective” or the lack of traditional Western morality that keeps “Rancho Notorious” from being treated seriously as a Western, the Western element certainly loses the Lang “cult” who look for femme fatales, fedoras, recycled “noir” clichés, ticking clocks, the use of mirrors and the imagined use of “German expressionism” to call a film “Langian.” The story is one of revenge – a common Lang theme – “bloody highlights” – a common Lang technique and yet it’s the actual visuals and pulp story line that makes it a uniquely Fritz Lang film. No matter how Lang bitched about the “fake quay” in “Moontide,” the “fakeness” of “Rancho Notorious” is deliberate although budget cuts may have taken it further than Lang had wanted. When Lang died, numerous volumes of pulp westerns were found among his possessions and Lang had been reading Westerns since he was a boy in Vienna. No matter how many Hollywood Westerns Lang had seen by John Ford or Raoul Walsh or Howard Hawks, his vision of the “West” was formed long ago and far away.
What is “Langian” about this story is more than that the hero never relents in his revenge. In “The Big Heat” Dave Bannion doesn’t relent although Lang didn’t write it and Bannion operated under a “greater good” scenario in a good versus evil environment that dominates the postwar crime film. Vern Haskell in “Rancho Notorious” entertains no such illusions about good versus evil. That doesn’t deserve a tip of the hat to Kriemhild, but it does separate Vern from all of Lang’s Hollywood heroes. There is no redemption, there are no second thoughts on the part of any character and there is no contrived happy ending. Lang’s other films in Hollywood exist within a society where some people have lost their bearings and by the end all is once again sunny and clear. There is also – for Vern – no going back to gingham curtains and a job at the feed store as Vern has crossed over to a very gray place that will soon get even darker.
Writing in the Los Angeles Examiner in 1952, reviewer Lynn Bowers notes “There is a kind of fine, sad mood hovering over the picture which has been subtly maintained by director Fritz Lang through the more rousing action moments, and you get the feeling that nearly every one of the characters is doomed, which they are.” And that isn’t the usual response to two cowboys riding off into the sunset in a Hollywood Western.