The alternate title of Fritz Lang’s final stab at The Western? The Legend – you guys, I’m not kidding – The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck. The refrain of the film’s ballad? “HATE! MURDER! AND REVENGE!” The natural accompaniment to this smoldering, soul-eroding, quest of violence? Musical numbers!
Rancho Notorious, with its highly artificial sets, its mythic tale-telling flashbacks, and its ballad that actually narrates the film, is not quite a Western. It’s a 89-minute, high-concentrate dose of Western generic signifiers, plus Marlene Dietrich riding a man like a racehorse. The movie is this weird, hilarious fantasyscape that makes about the same amount of sense and yet carries the same amount of pathos as a Road Runner cartoon. The result is kinda glorious, provided you drink through the aforementioned singing.
We start off with Arthur Kennedy as tough but honest cowpoke Vern, which is kind of like having Orlando Bloom be a tough but honest cowpoke post-Elizabethtown. His fiance is killed during a robbery, and Vern seeks to find her killers at any cost, long after the posse’s headed back to the ranch. The movie-long quest to REVENGE her death indeed involves lots of HATE and more than one MURDER, and also the mysterious figure of Altar Keane (Dietrich), who we hear tell maintains a haven for thieves called Chuck-a-Luck. Like El Dorado, or Shangri-La, Chuck-a-Luck is this magical, mysterious place that everyone seems to have heard of, but only people who’ve been there can find, and Vern is convinced the villains who killed his beloved will be there. But Chuck-a-Luck may not even be real. Maybe Chuck-a-Luck is an idea, an ethos, a shadowy representation of our frontier-taming idealism ultimately destroyed by the hypocrisy of civilization and unforgiving mortality of nature. Or maybe, you know, it’s a Lincoln Logs-set that conveniently has a piano.
If you think the film looks like a trashy B-Western, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But the stylization is purposeful and bent entirely to Fritz Lang’s command of film form. He strips away the realism in order to play with the genre itself, and the stuff he comes up with – basing a Western around the woman instead of the man, creating a world in which everyone is simultaneously performing lies and looking for the truth, removing the Western landscape itself and with it, seemingly, any kind of moral clarity – is rare and interesting. The film is deliberately strange in order to point out the storytelling processes we accept unthinkingly in most other Westerns. Rancho Notorious is our vision of the Old West, and it’s HATE, MURDER, AND REVENGE. It’s a pretty cool experiment to break free from the lab. Then, of course, there’s Fraulein Dietrich.
Now here is a star persona put to good use. We see three flashbacks – legends, if you like – explaining Dietrich’s character, the thief-ranch-owning Altar Keane, before we meet her or her romantic interest/fastest draw in the West, a man unfortunately named Frenchy (Mel Ferrer). Finding them, and deciding whether or not to kill them or join them, is what the Arthur Kennedy character has to deal with, but it’s Marlene who draws us in. She’s a crooked dance-hall girl. She’s a whore with a heart of gold. She’s a chief of the outlaws. She’s an outlaw’s redemptive woman. She knows the land so well she can see anything coming. She doesn’t see the final battle coming. She’s got the confidence, the mysterious smile, the swag to carry Western folklore and all its contradictions on her shoulders with ease. Altar’s a great character and it’s a performance Dietrich clearly had fun with.
Nothing I just said softens how silly the film can be, and that’s partly a good thing. It’s not super academic or somber. The movie’s pretty funny. It’s over the top – you aren’t pronounced dead but “reeeaaaal ded.” However, there are parts of Rancho Notorious that are italics over-the-top. You will either start laughing uncontrollably or stop watching: Chuck-a-luck, y’all.
And look, okay, the structural and artistic reasons behind “The Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck” are valid. I get it, Fritz Lang, I do! It’s still…kind of terrible? I know in the age of Autotune we have no grounds to criticize every Roy Rogers theme song which were a key part of the style of Westerns from that era. This theme song, though? “But here’s a man with a crazy plan/a plan that will not fail./He’ll trick his way inside that jail/to reach his goal of…
…HATE, MURDER, AND REVENGE!!!”
Chuck-a-luck might be a kind of ridiculous legend, but the point of Rancho Notorious is to honor why these kinds of stories are legendary. It does so with more humor, singing, and slaps that it needed to. Waterfall through the ballad and you’ll walk away plenty entertained.
Take a Drink: every time the words HATE, MURDER, and REVENGE are said or sung.
Take a Drink: for each new flashback of Altar.
Take a Drink: any time Arthur Kennedy throws a punch.
Do a Shot: for the completion of the horserace.
Finish Your Drink: whenever you get fed up with the ballad, or come around to making it your ringtone.