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Offbeat psychological western in blazing Technicolor 4 Stars

“Hate, murder, and revenge”: Those are the last four words of a song featured continually throughout Fritz Lang’s hyperbolic western Rancho Notorious, and they certainly describe both the theme and thesis of the narrative therein.

Rancho Notorious (1952)
Released: 12 May 1952
Rated: Approved
Runtime: 89 min
Director: Fritz Lang
Genre: Western
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, Mel Ferrer
Writer(s): Daniel Taradash, Silvia Richards
Plot: After the murder of his fiancée, a Wyoming ranch hand sets out to find her killer.
IMDB rating: 6.9
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Other
Distributed By: Warner Archive
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 29 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: All
Release Date: 01/10/2023
MSRP: $21.99

The Production: 4/5

“Hate, murder, and revenge”: Those are the last four words of a song featured continually throughout Fritz Lang’s hyperbolic western Rancho Notorious, and they certainly describe both the theme and thesis of the narrative therein. It’s a boldly told tale emblazoned emphatically in Technicolor with two iconic stars and a featured cast of very familiar faces dotting the lush landscapes, both real and painted.

When his young and beautiful fiancé (Gloria Henry) is raped and murdered by a desperate bandit (Lloyd Gough), Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) searches far and wide for clues to the identity of her butcher, and the trail ends at Chuck-a-Luck, a secluded waystation for desperados who pay proprietor/former saloon girl Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) ten percent of their loot to serve as their hideout until the heat on them dies down. Vern is brought there by Aldar’s lover, gunslinger Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) whom he had helped out of a jam, and while Vern knows neither Frenchy nor Altar killed his girl, he understands that she holds the information that will lead him to the right man. But Frenchy’s the jealous type, and the other crooks (George Reeves, Frank Ferguson, Jack Elam, Dan Seymour, among others) roosting there for a spell are a bit suspicious of this stranger who asks lots of questions and stares through to their very souls.

Daniel Taradash’s screenplay is based on an original story by Silvia Richards, and while this 1952 western melodrama is no Destry Rides Again, Dietrich’s by-then classic western adventure from 1939, it’s certainly an unusual and a one-of-a-kind oater with the clever idea of the horse ranch serving as an assisted living hideout for bandits for a fee of 10% of their ill-gotten gains. This wasn’t director Fritz’s Lang first time out west either; he’d helmed two previous westerns, but he’s used a succession of close-ups (with blood sometimes quite garish) and some judicious flashbacks to Dietrich’s former years as a saloon girl and shill for the bar’s game of chuck-a-luck to establish the film’s tone and establish Altar’s knowing way of dealing with men especially since she’s still the most gorgeous lady within a hundred miles. Lang and Dietrich clashed over her character’s looks and behavior: he wanted a world-weary saloon madam who’d seen better days, but Dietrich insisted on taking full advantage of the Technicolor and looking dazzling in a continual array of Don Loper elaborate period gowns. This is Dietrich at the apex of her cinematic beauty. You’ll notice corners being cut in other ways as real location photography with its lush purple-orange sunsets often gives way to painted backdrops and cardboard sets that aren’t very convincing outdoor locales, but that doesn’t limit the action or excitement as the film drives toward its surprising conclusion.

The calendar may have said that Marlene Dietrich was fifty years old during the making of the picture, but you’d never believe it given the glamorous wardrobe and lighting that takes decades off her appearance (Hal Mohr’s expert camerawork also likely aided in the illusion). She’s as forthright and dominant as ever running her ranch with a firm and steady hand and entertaining the men with a chorus of “Get Away, Young Man” when called on to perform. Arthur Kennedy gives the film’s most emotional performance, devastated by his girl’s murder and blindly dedicated to avenging it. He’s comfortable in the saddle and with handling firearms, too, fitting into the western milieu with ease. Mel Ferrer is at his most appealing here, cocksure in his way with a pistol or a woman. Among the bandits, George Reeves as the randy womanizer certainly stands out. Jack Elam likewise makes his presence known as a crook tired of paying obeisance to Altar. Lloyd Gough as the rapist-turned-sniveling wimp when his secret is found out is cleverly used: Lang allows us to know his identity so we can watch as Vern turns over every rock looking for clues to his identity. William Frawley as a saloon owner gone bust likewise makes the most of his screen time.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. This is another of the Warner Archive miracle remasterings with Technicolor so brilliant it leaps off the screen, and black levels impressively inky adding a noirish flavor to this psychological western drama. Sharpness is so keen one can see folds in the painted backdrops, and there is plenty of detail to be read in the numerous close-ups Lang employs on all of the film’s major players.

Audio: 5/5

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix offers age-appropriate fidelity completely cleaned of any gaping problems with hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter. Dialogue is also easily discernible, and the Emil Newman background score and numerous choruses of Ken Darby’s “The Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck” (sung by Bill Lee who provided the singing voice for John Kerr in South Pacific and Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music, among others) which offer contextual moments in the narrative resonate with great conviction.

Special Features: 0/5

There are no bonus features on the disc.

Overall: 4/5

Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious offers an offbeat yet boldly entertaining western highlighted by expert performances from Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, Mel Ferrer, and a most familiar supporting cast. The Warner Archive restoration of this Technicolor feast comes highly recommended for fans of the stars, the genre, or the director.

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Published by

Matt Hough