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Paradoxes of Time: Rancho Notorious (1952) by Jack Miller

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The cinema of Fritz Lang, both in its German and American iterations, seems to be distinguished by its perverse and destructive tendencies. Lang’s characters are defined by violent impulses and by the webs of moral damnation that they inevitably become enveloped in. The critic Andrew Sarris once wrote that, “Lang’s explosive mise-en-scène implies that the world must be destroyed before it can be purified.” One wouldn’t have much trouble situating Rancho Notorious (1952), the third and final western Lang directed during his twenty year sojourn in Hollywood, within this decidedly volatile strain running through his work. After all, the film seems to position itself this way from the very outset via William Lee’s wonderful “Legend of Chuck-a-Luck” theme, which gleefully informs us over the opening title credits that a tale of “Hate… Murder… and Revenge” is in order. For me, this emphasis on violence in Lang’s work acts as a kind of elaborate smokescreen, obscuring us from the film’s deeper, more mysterious concern, namely its various representations of temporality.

The initial details of Rancho Notorious’s plot, a narrative red herring of sorts, seem to prepare us for a basic revenge scenario: the fiancée of Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) has been abused and murdered during a store robbery, and he sets out to find his lover’s killer, whom he knows only by her mysterious dying words, “Chuck-a-Luck.” Haskell soon learns that Chuck-a-Luck is in fact not a person, but an environment which appears to be vaguely associated with Marlene Dietrich’s Altar Keane character (one of the many great names of Lang’s cinema). Lang introduces Keane through a triptych of marvelous flashback sequences, rather than through the “real time” diegesis of the film, which crucially accord her character a kind of special status within the text.

These lively, carnivalesque flashback sequences of Keane, for me the high point of the entire film, construct a series of artificial and deeply theatrical spaces around Dietrich’s flamboyant performance style. Early on, Keane is shown winning a bar race in which women mount the backs of drunken men like horses. The ways in which Lang allows hothouse décor, expressionistic lighting patterns, and Dietrich’s own display of harshly stylized gestures to intermingle within the mise-en-scène here recall the ‘30s film collaborations of Dietrich and filmmaker Josef von Sternberg, especially the formal adventurousness of their early Hollywood outings Morocco (1930) and Dishonored (1931). The relationship between compositional elements and performative energy on display situates the character of Altar Keane within the storied lineage of Dietrich’s own filmography – she becomes a fictional entity of legendary proportion, drawing on a kind of mythic past both in terms of narrative logic and film history.

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Chuck-a-Luck is later revealed to be a bandit hideout, managed and overseen by Keane herself, operating beneath the friendly façade of a horse ranch which Haskell enters into in order to find his fiancée’s killer. Lang describes Chuck-a-Luck in terms which might be seen as diametrically opposed to the way he described Keane herself: it’s a space crucially defined by the absence of past, wherein no one living on the ranch is permitted to reveal their true name, or even to ask anyone a question. In this regard, it might be observed that this space, the “Rancho Notorious” of the title, functions as a continual, cinematic present tense, in many ways antithetical to the mythic, storied qualities that define the essence of Dietrich’s character. 

When it becomes unclear whether Keane’s romantic affections lean toward her old lover, Frenchy (Mel Ferrer) or the newcomer Haskell, Frenchy tells her: “Time holds us together, and time stronger than a rope.” This way of evaluating relationships in terms of mutual, shared experience is rendered obsolete by the very mandates of existence at Chuck-a-Luck. The film’s tragic denouement, arising out of a network of betrayals, seems to suggest that Altar Keane has evolved into a kind of fictive paradox herself: a figure both constructed by and opposed to the filmic past. 

Lang illustrates an ultimate inability to reconcile these tendencies by gesturing her character toward a final, narrative collapse – which in this case equals death. One might observe, at the film’s conclusion, that the destructive implications of Lang’s cinema have finally been linked with their origin in narrative meaning, the inseparable bond between one’s past and one’s fate. The finality of movement in Lang’s cinema almost always appears to be steeped in a kind of morbidity, and perhaps this is what makes his work in the western, a genre marked by foundations and redemptions of various kinds, seem like a magnificent shotgun marriage of sorts.


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