Chuck-a-Luck is a hole in the wall type ranch where men with prices on their heads hide out and are given protection by Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) and her lover Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) for ten percent of the loot brought in my the outlaws. Chuck-a-Luck is called Rancho Notorious in the film's title, which does sound somewhat better. Unfortunately a terrible narrative theme, "The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck" used throughout the movie becomes very grating to the ears. The ballad singer William Lee (who is he anyway?) doesn't help the situation. Fortunately the songs chosen for the talented Marlene Dietrich to perform are much better (actually one "Gypsy Davey" is an old British ballad that Woody Guthrie turned into a cowboy song). Her renditions are not quite on the level of her "See What The Boys In The Backroom Will Have" from the western classic "Destry Rides Again" but are still captivating. (Interesting that she played a saloon girl named Frenchy in "Destry" whereas this time her lover is named Frenchy.)
This is one of few so-called adult westerns from the 1950's that actually lives up to that label. The flashback barroom scene where the soiled angels are riding their customers in a drunken mock horse race as jockeys would ride horses shows how fun and games in Old West saloons really took place. The whores are not prima donnas as oft times shown in Hollywood films. Pay particular attention to the gross fat showgirl trying to ride a much smaller client. It is funny and repulsive at the same time. Fritz Lang takes away all window dressing. Even Marlene Dietrich looks much more slutty and rough around the edges than she did in "Destry." Being over a decade older gives even more authenticity to Dietrich's character. She looks like a much older Lola Lola from "Blue Angel."
Mel Ferrer is an actor with a somewhat limited range. In the right role he could shine. His best acting was done in a movie that came out just before this one, "The Brave Bulls." But his second best role is as Frenchy in "Rancho Notorious." He fits his part much better than Arthur Kennedy fits his. Kennedy as a gunslinging rancher is fine but Kennedy the lover takes a suspension of belief, especially as Marlene Dietrich's lover. One can just imagine how he would look in the morning after one night with Altar Keane.
Fritz Lang's direction is spectacular. He captures all the nuances of the characters. His flashback technique at the first of the movie to define Altar Keane's persona is reminiscent of Orson Welles' milestone direction of "Citizen Kane." Then he progresses to an almost film noir western in color. The cinematography is much better in some parts of the film. It is not as effective when Frenchy and Vern (Arthur Kennedy) are together in the hills (the background sometimes looks phony) than when interior sets are used. Perhaps this relates to a money problem producing the show.
Another enjoyable facet of the feature is the gallery of colorful character actors who all do superlative jobs. George Reeves (tv's Superman) is lovingly menacing as a womanizing gun toting ambusher. Jack Elam is fine as a distrustful negative thinking thief. Frank Ferguson plays the outlaw called Preacher who prays and reads from the Bible for special guidance in robbing and killing. William Frawley (better known as Fred Mertz) shows a mean side playing a double dealing saloon gambler who fires Altar. Fuzzy Knight is an honest barber who tries to help Vern out of a mess. This time he doesn't stutter. Several other notables such as Tom London, Kermit Maynard, and Harry Woods have interesting bit parts.
If Lang could have borrowed Tex Ritter from High Noon to do an appropriate theme, "Rancho Notorious" would have been a winner all the way.
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