(director: Fritz Lang; screenwriters: Daniel Taradash/from a Sylvia Richards novel “Gunsight Whitman”; cinematographer: Hal Mohr; editor: Otto Ludwig; cast: Marlene Dietrich (Altar Keane), Arthur Kennedy (Vern Haskell), Mel Ferrer (Frenchy Fairmont), Gloria Henry (Beth Forbes), William Frawley (Baldy Gunder), Jack Elam (Geary), John Doucette (Whitey), Lane Chandler (Sheriff Hardy), Frank Ferguson (Preacher), Lisa Ferraday (Maxine), Lloyd Gough (Kinch), William Haade (Sheriff Bullock), Francis McDonald (Harbin), John Raven (Dealer), George Reeves (Wilson), Dan Seymour (Comanche Paul), Fuzzy Knight (Barber), Fred Graham (Ace Maguire), Stuart Randall (Starr), Felipe Turich (Sanchez), John Kellogg (Factor), Roger Anderson (Red); Runtime: 89; RKO/Fidelity; 1952)
“It’s Lang’s last Western.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The Iverson Ranch at Chatsworth, a movie site rented out to all studios, was dressed up and used for the Technicolor production of RKO’s Rancho Notorious. Lang’s Western is considered to be one of the most unusual Westerns ever made. It’s a film that could not be dragged down by the bickering between Lang and Dietrich during the filming, or by the low budget ordered by Howard Hughes which kept most of the work in the studio, or by Hughes’ taking Lloyd Gough’s name off the credits because he failed to testify in the HUAC’s Hollywood witch hunt.
It was the first Western to make use of a folk ballad–Chuck-a-luck. It was played at various times to bolster its theme of “hate, murder, and revenge.” An old folk song in the film, “Auralee,” was later turned into the theme song of Elvis Presley’s, “Love Me Tender” (56). The film even had TV’s superman, George Reeves, playing one of the bandits hiding out at Dietrich’s Chuck-a-luck, a safe haven for wanted bandits. Those who stayed at the combination ranch and hideout were willing to pay her a ten per cent cut from their robbery and the only rule in the place, was to ask no questions. This was a ludicrous ploy, as if one expected the bandits to be honest with her and give her the exact amount to stay; but it is fair to say, that reality was not one of the film’s strong points.
Vern Haskell (Kennedy) is the happiest rancher in Wyoming because he will marry in eight days the lovely Beth Forbes (Gloria), whom he has just given a special brooch to. His happiness will be shattered when two men ride into his small-town and one of them, Kinch (Gough), will go inside the general store where Beth works and rob the safe, steal her brooch, rape Beth, and then kill her when she screams. The other man, Whitey (Doucette), who waited outside with the horses, is upset with his partner and wants to leave him and get his share of the robbery before they reach Chuck-a-luck. Kinch will have none of that and shoots Whitey in the back. But before Whitey dies, Vern hears his last words: Chuck-a-luck. Vern was chasing the two before the posse decided to chicken-out and turn back, and he decides to go on alone to get the remaining killer.
Vern dedicates his life to getting revenge, even if it means he has to become a killer to catch him. He will get his best lead in a barbershop, where the man getting a shave overhears him ask the barber about Chuck-a-luck. The man tells him it is a gunslinger’s hideout run by Altar Keane (Dietrich) and he is not supposed to ask strangers about it. The two get into a fist fight after the man pulls a gun on Vern, and Vern subsequently kills him and is arrested. When Vern uses his head and tells the sheriff that he only killed a wanted man, the sheriff confirms that it is so by looking at Wanted Posters and seeing that it is Ace Maguire he killed and lets him go; but, not before telling him about a saloon in Virginia City with a chuck-a-luck wheel and a singer named Altar who used to work there.
In Virginia City, Vern hears the story of how Altar got fired by the crooked saloon owner Baldy (Frawley) and took the twenty dollars in wages he gave her to bet at the chuck-a-luck wheel. She won big and with the help of a fast-draw gunslinger, Frenchy Fairmont (Ferrer), is able to keep her money and leave town on the stage for Silver City under his protection. Baldy, embittered that since Altar left his place business plummeted, tells Vern that he heard that Frenchy was just arrested at a town called Gunsight.
Vern has become so obsessed with revenge, willing to do anything to get the killer, that he gets himself thrown in the Gunsight jail by causing a disturbance in a saloon. There are two cells, one occupied by crooked politicians and the other by Frenchy. Lang takes a jab at the politicians, as the jailer asks Vern which cell he prefers and he replies: “I’d rather be with an outlaw than with a politician, at least what they are doing is out in the open.” Frenchy and Vern are able to escape and since Vern is now a wanted man, he brings him to Altar’s place by the Mexican border.
Once there Vern notices Altar wearing the brooch he gave Beth and comes to suspect that one of the nine men staying there gave it to her. It becomes a cat-and-mouse game for him to get to the bottom of things as he sweet talks Altar, getting her to like him. Vern is the good man that Altar had once been looking for but never thought she would find. Meanwhile, Frenchy becomes jealous, though he continues to teach Vern how to shoot like him. Vern turns indistinct from the others at the ranch, even robbing a bank with them.
Warning: spoilers to follow.
When the cold-hearted, almost masculine-like, Altar, warms up and finally falls for Vern, he presses her about the brooch thinking it was Frenchy who gave it to her. But she tells him it was Kinch and her temporary romantic bliss is destroyed, almost like Vern’s life was destroyed when he learned what happened to Beth. He goes into a rage, telling her he will kill Kinch and that he has no respect for what kind of life she is leading.
The final scene is a brutal one among the gang members: they have found out that Altar snitched on Kinch and come into Altar’s ranch to pull a gun on the bewildered Frenchy and the almost lifeless Altar, who has fallen apart after her rejection. This results in a shootout and final confrontation between Kinch and Vern.
It’s Lang’s last Western and one that covers again the themes he successfully used in his noir films, and one that makes good use of his expressionistic style of filmmaking. The film compensates for having the 51-year-old Marlene being the sexpot in the film, a casting decision which seems to me based more for her star power than for looking the part. But aside from looking old, Marlene proved she was up to the part, giving a brilliantly mannered performance. The film has a certain electricity about it, even if it does seem a bit corny at times.
REVIEWED ON 2/1/2000 GRADE: A-