Review

  • The Western is so unique, so internalised, and so full of instantly-recognisable motifs, that many Westerns from the classic era take on the look and feel not of the western United States, but some surreal and separate country, as far removed from America as anywhere else. This was especially the case when the increasingly European production crews in Hollywood produced their skewed yet affectionate takes on this "most American of genres".

    Rancho Notorious at first comes across as a "noir" Western, at least if one looks at the Sylvia Richards story and Daniel Taradash screenplay, but it's much more than that. Director Fritz Lang probably had much less to do with the screenplay than is sometimes claimed (he was never a particularly great writer, even in his native German), but he has a whole lot to do with the tone of the picture. Far from turning this into an anti-western, he makes use of sweeping landscapes, rough-looking saloons and typical cowboy business, the sort of thing some revisionist filmmakers eschewed, but they are all given that typical Lang look of zigzagging paths and stark diagonal lines. He also injects that stylised rhythmic feel that harks back to his silent pictures or the bizarre semi-musical gangster movie You and Me (1938). A montage of gritty faces underscores a few of the songs, while a mysterious puff of smoke drifts onto the screen as Marlene Dietrich decides whether or not to gamble the last of her money. The impression is of a Western full of exaggerated cliché, and yet totally remote from the cosy cowboy flick.

    The second crucial figure in Rancho Notorious is the other German émigré, Fraulein Dietrich. Although Dietrich is not really known as a Western star, her only other appearance in the genre being Destry Rides Again in 1939, her character in Rancho Notorious seems to be a play upon her old screen persona. It seems to chime particularly true with her real career trajectory that everyone remembers Altar Keane's name, a few have some sordid stories about her, but no-one seems to know quite what has happened to her now. Dietrich plays the part sublimely, conjuring up some of her old magic, tinged with the weariness of middle-age. Her best moments are in the series of flashbacks in which her character is introduced – her gleeful cheating in the "horse" race scene, or the disdainfulness with which she brushes off a would-be admirer in the gambling joint. She has the air of someone who has been round the block a bit, and yet makes it eminently clear why men still love her and fight over her. The very worthy Arthur Kennedy is ostensibly the lead player, although it is appropriate he is billed below Dietrich not just because she was a bigger star, but because she really is the heart of this movie.

    Rancho Notorious is rather a cheap and cheerful offering, with the all the production values of the trashy B-Westerns that this era was full of. And yet it has something that even some of the most prestigious and professional pictures do not. Everyone involved seems to have been working on the same wavelength. There is the stripped-down production design of Wiard Ihnen and washed out Hal Mohr cinematography, which help to give it this bleak, distant imagery. Then there's the casting in smaller roles, stereotypically Western yet almost comically over-the-top, like the coroner who pronounces a man "reeeaal dead", or the moustachioed old-timer who imagines the ranch as some sort of romantic hideaway. And finally those haunting and twisted takes on the cowboy ballads penned by Ken Darby. Together they create a compelling view of the west, not as it really was, but as it has been imagined – in this instance, a dream of the Old West a few shades away from a nightmare.