Rancho Notorious, Fritz Lang (1952)

Earlier this summer I mentioned on this blog that I’d long ago resigned myself to never seeing this movie, since it seemed to be out of print. A sympathetic friend — one of the approximately six people who I think read this blog on occasion — saw this comment, and, through some sort of probably larcenous interweb wizardry, made a little dream come true. My thanks, friend. I’m glad not to have had to go to my grave without seeing this curiosity of the Lang oeuvre, which has loomed so large in my imagination for so long.

“I wish you’d go away and come back ten years ago,” says Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) to Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy). Sounds like a cry of doomed love from a standard oater melodrama, but, as usual, Lang’s up to a lot more in this movie than immediately meets the eye. We have here, again, as so often in Lang (and Hitchcock, and Mann), the good man driven to madness by evil. But Lang’s sense of good and evil is so much more decadent than either of these others. Good and evil aren’t moral successes or failings in Lang; they’re accidents of fate. Lang wanted to call this picture “Chuck-a-Luck,” which of course didn’t pass muster, because it’s ridiculous. It’s the right title, though: Chuck-a-luck is the name of a game of chance which sets the plot in motion, and chance is the determinant for all that follows. The main bad guy of the movie, Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer, who is terrific here, though I kept fantasizing Dan Duryea in the role) isn’t a bad guy at all. He happened into a situation where he was forced to shoot, was seen to be good at shooting, and so was forced by circumstance to become a shooter. In most westerns, identity — whether good or evil — is self-determined. Indeed, the climax of the typical western is the moment when the protagonist finally realizes he is the master of his destiny. In Lang, your identity is thrust upon you by chance, and catharsis comes when you capitulate to this fact. “I wish you’d go away and come back ten years ago.” It’s the weary, winking kiss/kiss-off of someone who’s learned to amor her fati, yet still recalls, vaguely, old times when it seemed she, not chance, got to choose who she’d be.

I’m embarrassed to say I’m a little verklemmt and need to leave it there. But one of these days I should think more about the gender economics of this movie — Dietrich is basically a pimp whose girls’ tricks consist of robbing banks. Many wild horses are broken, etc. No cross dressing, but close; Vern does tear a piece of jewelry from the Altar in a little hissy fit.

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