Few would suspect that Fritz Lang, the European émigré who made a name for himself with sweeping epics and cynical, nihilistic thrillers, would have a soft spot for Westerns, that most American of genres. But love them he did, explaining: “(Westerns) are based on a very simple and essential ethical code…All simple morals are important for the success of a film. Even with Shakespeare the moral is simple. The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world.”
During his Hollywood career, Lang directed no less than three Westerns. The first, The Return of Frank James (1940), a sequel to Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), followed James’ surviving brother Frank (Henry Fonda) as he hunted for his brother’s killers. Lang gleefully indulged in the genre’s time-worn tropes: a story of righteous revenge; a villainous railway agent; a casual comfort with re-writing history for drama’s sake (Fonda is found not guilty of murdering one of his brother’s killers because the jury believed that he was doing the right thing); an even more casual racism in its “Stepin Fetchit” depiction of black people. If hints of Lang’s influences as a director can be found in The Return of Frank James, they are virtually nonexistent in his second Western entitled Western Union (1941). A curious story about a reformed outlaw played by Randolph Scott, a band of faux-Confederate guerrillas disguised as Native Americans, and the installation of the frontier’s first telegraph line, Western Union feels like watered down Howard Hawks.
But his third Western, Rancho Notorious (1952), is pure Fritz Lang through and through. In many ways, it’s a warm-up for his later noir masterpiece The Big Heat (1953). After his fiancée is cruelly raped and murdered during a robbery, Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) sets out to find her killers and bring them to savage justice. Frank James was guided in his quest for revenge by a sense of justice. Kennedy is motivated by nothing less than pure, unadulterated hatred and fury, much like Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) in The Big Heat—who coincidentally is also spurred on his blood-stained path against crime by the murder of his wife.
He finally tracks her killer to Chuck-a-Luck, a hidden horse ranch near the Mexican border that operates as a hideout for outlaws…for a modest fee, of course. Payment goes to the owner of the ranch, ex-dancing girl Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).
In order to discover which of the outlaws living on the ranch is his man, he pretends to be a criminal and joins their gang. During his masquerade for justice, he will himself commit several injustices. In addition to participating in robberies, there is a chilling sequence where he abandons three crooked politicians to be lynched by townsfolk.
Much like Sergeant Bannion, his willingness to sacrifice bystanders and civilians for his own ends is down-right sociopathic. And also like The Big Heat, Rancho Notorious hides its protagonist’s ruthlessness with a veneer of civility and upbeat heroism.
There are other features which make Rancho Notorious a notable entry in Lang’s oeuvre: extensive use of noir-esque flashbacks providing back-story; effective high-contrast color cinematography; bizarrely perfunctory action sequences which feel like second-unit work; an odd juxtaposition of Lang’s obvious love and idolization of Dietrich as a Teutonic icon of the Old West with the fact that her character and performance pale in comparison with Arthur Kennedy’s. In addition to being the most characteristically Lang-ian of his three Westerns, Rancho Notorious is easily the best of them. Dark, brooding, and callous, it is a minor triumph of his later Hollywood work.