Directed by Fritz Lang; Written by Daniel Taradash
Black-hearted romance and revenge
Eight days out from being married to his life’s love, Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) is called back from working cattle to stand over the corpse of his to-be wife “who wasn’t spared anything,” per the disgusted town doctor. A half-hearted posse forms to catch her killer and rapist, but they’re soon brought to a halt by a county line and its limit to lawful pursuit. Haskell, hellbent on revenge, rides on alone, and with little to go on, begins a months-long search for an elusive hideout called Chuck-a-luck where his target is said to be headed.
The vile act is the pitch pipe for what a singing narrator calls “a story of hate,” and an early shot of Haskell’s black silhouette riding into a crimson-red sunset sets the stage perfectly for one man’s descent into an impersonal world of cutthroats and a singular pursuit of hot-blooded murder.
Disguised in cowboy hats, jeans and color cinematography, Rancho Notorious is as much a noir as any of Lang’s other classics, it’s pitch-black ethos and tragic fates evidence of a world with a wasted heart. Gone are grimy alleys and dive bars and there to take their place are saloons, cantinas and jail cells. Also gone are the open ranges of John Ford, as their promise of escape seems a naive proposition in the life of Haskell and the men he hunts.
Taradash’s script depicts a world dominated by injustice and violence, as Haskell breaks into a way of life where the closest thing to camaraderie are found during those drunken debauched evenings after bloodshed. The rest is manipulation, camera-shaking fisticuffs, and white-knuckled glares. Haskell, travelling far and wide, is quickly unrecognizable, having gone from glad-eyed farmhand to ruthless ranger as we watch him try to track down his fiancé’s killer.
Waiting for Haskell at the infamous Chuck-a-luck is owner Altar Keane, proprietor of this den of thieves, and few could believably pull off a queen bee of killers like Marlene Dietrich, imperious in her icy aloofness. She finally appears after Lang’s mythologized her in numerous flashbacks from witness accounts, all meant to piece together a woman no longer ruled by the whims of men, but also blind any ethical qualms about how she makes her money, which is taking a cut from the take of any outlaw who wants to lie low under her eaves. Living off the spoils of human suffering, for a woman, is the price of freedom in the world of Rancho Notorious.
Led by Dietrich’s Keane, the cast of characters and their interplay all lift up Rancho Notorious. With Taradash’s efficient script, even minor characters are quickly fleshed out and revealed with small, perverse details as the killers, crooks and cowards they are, providing a tightly-knit ecosystem governed by that weird brand of outlaw loyalty where you break your cronies out of jail in the morning only to shoot them in the back that afternoon after they eye you funny in a game of cards.
A cynical film only concerned with the dark heart of the wild west, Rancho Notorious will thrill you and then leave you feeling wrong for feeling that way. Haskell’s crusade is a far shout from the divinity of forgiveness, and the world of Rancho Notorious is one where no one earns, or deserves it.