Despite its faults, and there are plenty of them, I really like Rancho Notorious.
It’s part of Fritz Lang’s later Hollywood output — a string of cheaper, independent films often dismissed by admirers of his earlier work. With its reliance on simplistic camerawork, a silly plot somewhat borrowed from Lang’s Mabuse films, soundstages rather than the great outdoors, and the fact that Marlene Dietrich’s makeup seems to have been applied with a trowel (she was past 50), Rancho Notorious is an easy mark for someone looking to slam a great director.
Compared to other Westerns of the 50s, Rancho Notorious seems quite dated. Watching it today, it seems older than Lang’s Western Union from 1941. And it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what the director, who also developed the story, was aiming for.
Lang said, “What I wanted to show in Rancho Notorious was a young woman who owned a ranch, a sort of retreat for outlaws, opposed to a celebrated killer who had become too old to draw quickly. Enter into the game a young man who is quick on the draw. The eternal theme of the Western.”
It’s one of the few pictures Lang developed from the very beginning. The screenplay is by Daniel Taradash, from a story credited to Silvia Richards (but supposedly cooked up by Lang). Of his experience writing the film, Taradash said, “I learned more about screenwriting from Fritz Lang than from anyone. We would sit at his house over his dreadful coffee (the worst I’ve ever tasted) and we’d go over the stuff I was writing. I was showing him pages — that was mandatory. And he was literally working in every angle, over-the-shoulder shots, stuff like that. I learned how to choreograph a script. I said, ‘Why are you doing it this way?’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you, Dan. I love this story and what you’re doing. But I am close to falling out with these guys’ — our producers — ‘and it would not surprise me if at some point I am off the picture. I want a script that even an idiot can shoot.’”
Rancho Notorious tells the tale of rancher Vern Haskall (Arthur Kennedy) whose fiancé (Gloria Henry) is raped and murdered in a holdup. Consumed with revenge, Vern sets out to find her killer. The trail leads him to Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) and Chuck-A-Luck, a retreat for outlaws run by Altar Keane (Dietrich). Vern falls in with the gang — and with Dietrich — before finding his girl’s killer. By then, he’s a changed man — a bank robber, not a rancher. It’s a cynical tale, full of cheats, hypocrites, bandits and murderers — not to mention a good man driven half crazy by hate. It’s the kind of pessimism that marks many of Lang’s films from the 50s. (Ever see The Big Heat?)
Rancho Notorious was produced during Howard Hughes’ reign at RKO. And like a lot of people who made movies at the studio during this period, Fritz Lang didn’t exactly relish the experience. “We had a very limited budget and decided to make everything in the studio. I made it on the General Service lot; Howard Hughes financed it. Now, to make a Western in the studio is very difficult. We didn’t make everything in the studio — the scenes in the street we shot on Republic’s Western Street. But we didn’t have enough money for the set of the mountaintop overlooking the ranch and desert where Marlene comes to speak with Kennedy.”
The soundstage desert vistas are painfully obvious. And while they give certain scenes a dreamlike quality, they also show just how cheap the picture really was. The over-lit Technicolor doesn’t help much, calling attention to the painted backdrops and Dietrich’s makeup. On the subject of budgets and makeup, Gloria Henry remembered, “Marlene Dietrich had to have a certain makeup and hairdresser, but RKO had no money, so she did it at home with her people. She’d arrive, fully done, on the set!”
“Now, Marlene resented going gracefully into a little, tiny bit older category,” Lang said. “She became younger and younger until finally it was hopeless. She also ganged up with one actor against another actor; it was not a very pleasant thing.”
Gloria Henry added, “She was trying to get together with Mel Ferrer. She had the hots for him, but he was married to Audrey Hepburn and didn’t reciprocate.”
All this was aggravated by a one-time affair between Lang and Dietrich, who, by the end of shooting, weren’t even on speaking terms. (There are also stories of an affair between Lang and writer Silvia Richards.)
In her autobiography, Marlene Dietrich wrote, “Fritz Lang was the director I detested most…. In order to be able to work with Lang, I had to repress all the hatred and aversion he aroused in me. If Mel Ferrer had not been there, I probably would have walked off the set in the middle of shooting. But Mel was always near and helped to see me through those troublesome days.”
All this drama was not lost on cinematographer Hal Mohr. “I think Fritz Lang is a hell of a good director… but I don’t like people who abuse people…. He got very abusive to some of my camera crew. So one day I finally had to have it out with him; it was a very unhappy occasion. But I finished the picture. Howard Welsch was the producer, and I wanted to get off the picture, I wanted to quit. Howard prevailed upon me to stay — and Lang wanted to fire me, he wanted me to get off the picture. So we never talked to each other for a long time, we just went ahead and did the work.”
With the end of shooting, the troubles didn’t stop. Lang and producer Welsch didn’t get along, and the director expected to be removed from the picture at any minute. “But Fritz finished the picture, and he told me he had turned it in at an hour and 45,” said Dan Taradash. “A few weeks later I ran into Howard Welsch, one of the producers, and asked how did he like it. ‘Oh, fine,’ he said. ‘I cut 15 minutes out of it.’ Now I knew it had been a tight cut for Fritz, so I said, ‘What did you cut?’ And, so help me God, Welsch said, ‘I cut the mood!’”
Even the title was subject to change. As Lang told Peter Bogdanovich, “Originally, the picture was called Chuck-A-Luck, which is vertical roulette. I called the ranch Chuck-A-Luck and there was a song throughout the film called ‘Chuck-A-Luck’…. Personally, I love that song very much.”
Retitled Rancho Notorious by Howard Hughes, the film hit theaters in May 1952. It was not a hit — in fact, it was out-grossed by RKO’s 1952 re-release of King Kong (1933). Later that year, Lang did the noir-ish Clash By Night for the studio. By that time, RKO was in turmoil and producing very few films.
Dietrich never concealed her disliking for the film and Fritz Lang. She wrote, “Rancho Notorious, the film I made with him, was and remains a very mediocre work.”
Speaking of mediocre, Rancho Notorious has not been well served on home video over the years. From tape to LaserDisc, they were all pretty lousy. The new DVD-R from The Warner Archive makes up for it. Sharp image. Gorgeous color. My only complaint is that the audio levels seemed a bit low — but if you turn up the volume, it’s crisp and clear. And I, for one, feel this picture is worthy of an official Special Edition-type release. No matter what Marlene says.
Sources: Fritz Lang Interviews, Who The Devil Made It?, Fritz Lang In America, Marlene Dietrich: My Life, The Art Of The Cinematographer, www.classicimages.com and other stuff.