director Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious starts out with a rape and murder of a pretty shop owner by a vicious outlaw. For 1952, this suggestion is hardly detailed and yet more explicit than implicit. This is the event that spurs Vern (Arthur Kennedy) on a long, lonesome road to revenge, tracking through Indian territory on the trail of an outlaw, and finding himself at a secretive ranch run by a former showgirl Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), who now harbors criminals for 10% of their loot.
The bandits that meet up there range broadly in the crimes and characters, and Vern comes to hide among them but also to identify with some of them, most significantly Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), Keane’s long-time semi-beau. This is familiar territory for Lang, a criminal underworld, but one with its own ethics, honesty, and sense of fair play.
Really, it’s Vern who is the deceiver, playing a wanted outlaw to get close to the criminals who killed his girl. Though he joins them on a bank robbery, tying himself to the criminals, it’s his betrayal of Keane’s rules that allow him to eke out his revenge.
This is late Lang, a period somewhat disdained by his fans and critics. Produced and re-named by Howard Hughes, this is a cheapie by Hollywood standards. But Rancho Notorious was a film that Lang developed more fully than most, from conception to completion, and it bears the qualities of the work of one of the true auteurs in Hollywood.
It’s also got Dietrich, right at the top, a meta-legend in the story, and an aging movie star still relatively youthful at her age of 51.
I always seem to find Lang’s films sit with me, develop more and more in retrospect, and I sense that Rancho Notorious will as well.