Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, Mel Ferrer, Jack Elam, Gloria Henry, William Frawley, Lisa Ferraday, John Raven, George Reeves, Frank Ferguson, Francis McDonald, Dan Seymour, John Kellogg, Rodric Redwing
Written by: Daniel Taradash, based on a story by Fritz Lang, Sylvia Richards
Directed by: Fritz Lang
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 85
Date: 03/01/1952

Rancho Notorious (1952)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Pauline Kael predicted that this 1952 effort would not be among the films Fritz Lang would be remembered for. Fortunately, she was wrong. At first glance it seems like a silly, stagy Western, but Lang managed to use the film's shortcomings to his advantage.

Vern (Arthur Kennedy) is bent on finding the man who killed his beloved fiancée. He spends years searching and following leads, and one name keeps coming up: Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich). A former showgirl, Keane now runs a ranch called the Chuck-a-Luck that specializes in hiding wanted outlaws. Vern helps break Altar's beau Frenchy (Mel Ferrer) out of jail, and Frenchy leads Vern straight to the ranch. But has Vern found the right man?

Rancho Notorious is unique for its noticeable lack of sprawling landscapes and sweeping movements. Because the small budget kept Lang sequestered on the studio lot, he found a way to use the sets for their claustrophobic, caged feel. The revenge-lust thread plays through the entire film and never lets up, and the garish colors and lighting seem to emphasize this.

It's a superb achievement, and it led to two more similar Freudian masterworks, Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954) and Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (1957). According to some sources, Lang and Dietrich had an affair during production, but were no longer speaking by the time the film wrapped. Howard Hughes produced. Co-star George Reeves went on to play "Superman" on TV.

Rancho Notorious is currently only available on a Region 2, PAL import DVD from Optimum Releasing. Their transfer is a bit dark and fuzzy, and reveals bits of video noise, but on the whole it's perfectly acceptable. There are no extras except for a list of other Optimum Western titles, including Lang's Western Union. Note: It is now available in the USA from Warner Archive.

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