Rancho Notorious

(Fritz Lang, USA, 1952): As determinedly weird a Hollywood western you’ll find — at least until Johnny Guitar rides in — this patently artificial little payback drama was reportedly the result of some high-level ego clashes: producer Howard Hughes wanted it made cheaply, star Marlene Dietrich wanted it made glamorously, and director Fritz Lang wanted the whole damn thing made differently. Would that all products of such intense dispute turn out so consistently engrossing and strange. As the torturously insistent title song belts home, this is a tale of “hate, murder and revenge”, and that’s exactly what the hero, Verne Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) is after. His fiancee has been gunned down and violated in a robbery, and when he learns — through a very un-fifties-western-like resort to elaborate flashbacks — that the killers have likely taken refuge in the legendary hideout run by Marlene Dietrich’s Altar Keane (it’s called ‘Chuckaluck’, and it’s also sung about interminably by the studio chorus) — he poses as a desperado and insinuates his way into both the ranch and it’s operators heart. While the theme of — what was that again? Oh yeah, “hate, murder and revenge” — is hardly alien to Lang’s work, it’s here filtered productively through several layers of warping influence: there’s the Technicolor process, which primes the expectation of dance numbers at any moment; there’s the cheapness of the interior sets, which the Technicolor process only makes that much more apparent; and there’s the casting of Dietrich, whose Altar Keane more closely resembles a western saloon version of Norma Desmond than a frontier femme fatale. But it all works beautifully because the great expressionistic director knows exactly how to capitalize on all that falseness and push the whole enterprise up to another level of sustained delirium. Not easily forgotten, that’s for sure. (Warner Brothers Home Entertainment)