Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fritz and Marlene Play Chuck-a-Luck in "Rancho Notorious"

Fritz Lang's complex tale of “hate, murder, and revenge” played a key role in the development of the “adult Western” in the 1950s. Films such as Rancho Notorious, Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur (1953) and Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954) featured brooding, driven characters who struggled to maintain their morality in a violent world. They presented quite a contrast to John's Ford's dignified Western heroes, as embodied by John Wayne (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and others.

The “hero” of Rancho Notorious is Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy), a lovesick cowpoke only eight days away from marrying Beth (Gloria Henry). The couple's idyllic dreams are destroyed when an outlaw named Kinch (Lloyd Gough) rapes and kills Beth. Obsessed with revenge, Vern devotes his life to finding Beth's killer. His only clue, obtained from the dying lips of Kinch's partner, is the name of the killer's destination: Chuck-a-Luck.

In the ensuing months, Vern learns that Chuck-a-Luck has something to do with Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), a once popular dancehall queen. He also discovers that Altar's alleged lover, famed outlaw Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), was captured while trying to purchase a bottle of perfume. Vern gets himself thrown into jail with Frenchy and then, through good luck and his sharp wits, helps Frenchy escape. The grateful Frenchy takes Vern to Chuck-a-Luck, a ranch hideout for outlaws operated by Altar Keane. It is here that Verne hopes to find and execute Beth’s killer.

Lang's original title for the film was Chuck-a-Luck, but RKO executive Howard Hughes changed it because he thought European audiences would not understand the title (Lang's alleged response: “But they would know what Rancho Notorious is?”). While Hughes' title certainly has more flair, Lang's Chuck-a-Luck is more appropriate. Chuck-a-Luck is not only the name of Altar's ranch, but it's also a game of chance that's integral to the film's plot. When Altar and Frenchy first meet, she is playing her last $20 piece on a rigged Chuck-a-Luck wheel (which can best be described as vertical roulette). Frenchy pushes the crooked Chuck-a-Luck dealer aside and spins the wheel himself, ensuring that Altar wins big.

Some film critics go so far as to suggest that Lang structured the film like a Chuck-a-Luck wheel. Vern's search for Altar’s ranch, shown through several montage sequences, represents the spinning of the Chuck-a-Luck wheel. The montage stops—just as the wheel does—whenever Lang wants to show an important event, such as the barber shop fight where Vern learns about Altar Keane or the flashback where Frenchy meets Altar for the first time.

Like many of Lang's films, Rancho Notorious depicts an honest man who, through the intervention of events beyond his control, becomes morally ambiguous. In his quest for vengeance, Vern helps an outlaw escape justice, participates in a bank robbery, and shows a willingness to kill in cold blood. In some Lang films, his protagonists suffer retributions or somehow reestablish their faith in humanity: In Fury (1936) and The Big Heat (1953), the vengeance-minded characters played by Spencer Tracy and Glenn Ford pull back from the brink of a meaningless world. However, like Vern in Rancho Notorious, it's too late for other Lang characters like Henry Fonda's petty criminal in You Only Live Once (1937) and Edward G. Robinson's henpecked husband-turned-murderer in Scarlet Street (1945).

Rancho Notorious has never achieved the classic status of Lang's most revered works, such as Metropolis (1926), M (1931), and the Dr. Mabuse movies. However, in the late 1960s, when film writers began to view Lang as an auteur, they elevated it to the status of an essential work in Lang's legacy. And, though rarely rated as a must-see Western (the stagy sets don’t help), Rancho Notorious remains a favorite among genre fans due to its influence on other dark 1950s Western dramas such as The Hanging Tree. Even the funky “Legend of Chuck-a-Luck” ballad begins to grow on you after a few viewings.


  1. Rick, Encore Westerns is running Rancho tomorrow (Friday a couple of times I'm finally going to have a DVD copy)and TCM is running Johnny Guitar with JOAN CRAWFORD. BTW TCM is running Fury on April 5th at 90:15 am Pacific (check local listings)

  2. Rick, I have not seen, Rancho Notorious . I'm a huge Marlene Dietrich, fan. So this is a "gotta see" film.

  3. "So listen to the legend of Chuck-a-luck,
    Listen to the wheel of fate,
    As 'round and 'round, with a whispering sound,
    It sings the old, old story of
    Hate, murder, and revenge."

    I can still hear the deep, deep voice of Bill Lee singing this ballad, which does a great job of summing up the story. Great write-up, Rick!
    I think it is interesting to have two consecutive days of films with characters named Frenchy.

  4. Never seen this, but I like Dietrich and Kennedy. Thanks for the great review.

  5. Paul - I've wanted to watch RANCHO NOTORIOUS and JOHNNY GUITAR back-to-back for ages and now, thanks to you, I'll be able to record both and watch a double feature featuring those two glorious Queens of the West, Dietrich and Crawford. Thanks for the notice.

  6. Eve,I know I've been wanting the same thing. Is this cool or what? Your welcome

  7. Sounds very interesting, and very fitting for Marlene Dietrich.