30 Great Westerns
Rancho Notorious

Arthur Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, and Mel Ferrer in Rancho Notorious.

Rancho Notorious (1952) marks the second Western written specifically for Marlene Dietrich. While George Marshall's Destry Rides Again (1939) may have attempted to rehabilitate Marlene Dietrich's subversive image, Fritz Lang calls on Dietrich's full persona, her advancing age, and his own flair for noir-melodrama and brings them together with a Western setting. This film marked Lang’s third Western, following Western Union (1940) and The Return of Frank James (1941).

This revenge Western is narrated by a recurring ballad--with the claim of being the first film to use this narrative technique that has reappeared from Cat Ballou to Something About Mary. The impetus of the tale is the murder and rape of a ranchhand's sweetheart. Throughout this film, the male characters are incapable of protecting or controlling women--and one woman, Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), demonstrates her ability to protect and control men.

Rancho Notorious may actually be more of a mystery than a Western. Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) follows two clues left by men before they died: "Chuck-a-Luck" and "Altar Keane." Altar Keane is thus first introduced as a rumor, "a pipedream," an enigmatic clue to the murder of his fiancé, Beth. Vern follows her trail, listening to wild tales that people relish telling of the singer and "glory girl." This film is often cited with Destry as the inspiration for Madeline Kahn's parody in Blazing Saddles. However, Dietrich is only seen as a saloon singer in these introductory fragments--and she is only "tired" in the song that she sings right before quitting for good.

When Vern meets Altar Keane in the flesh, she looks more like a sexy Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino--("You’ve got grease on you," she says)--than a world weary chanteuse. She is vibrant and radiant, relishing her role as the owner of Chuck-a-Luck--a horse ranch that serves as the hideout for outlaws, including Beth’s killer. Altar also flourishes from the love and respect of the infamous gunfighter Frenchy Stewart, played with style and charisma by Mel Ferrer. Frenchy proudly greets her with, "Hello, Boss," and seems to be the only man who is not threatened by her strength and control.

The naive ranchhand Vern ingratiates himself to Frenchy and to Altar to learn the identity of Beth’s killer. Though Vern is described at the beginning of the film as not much with a gun, he becomes second only to Frenchy in his speed and accuracy with a revolver. Despite her long standing relationship with Frenchy, Altar finds it difficult to resist the attentions of this innocent, young man--displaying her own "innocence." The combination of this love triangle--which may or may not be sincere--with the hunt for the killer creates an interesting tension.

The suspects in residence at Chuck-a-Luck include Kinch (Lloyd Gough), Preacher (Frank Ferguson), Geary (Jack Elam), and Wilson (George Reeves in between Superman films).

--by Elizabeth Abele