Western RoundUp: Rancho Notorious (1952)
Over the past few months I’ve written about catching up with a trio of Barbara Stanwyck‘s ’50s Westerns, most recently The Furies (1950), which I covered in my column in early January.
This month I’ve caught up with another new-to-me ’50s Western featuring a notable actress, Marlene Dietrich. The movie is Rancho Notorious (1952), which was just released on a beautiful Blu-ray by the Warner Archive Collection.
Rancho Notorious was an RKO film directed by Fritz Lang, filmed in Technicolor by Hal Mohr.
It features an interesting mix of actors in the cast including Arthur Kennedy and Mel Ferrer.
As the film begins, cowboy Vern Haskell (Kennedy) is romancing his sweetheart Beth (Gloria Henry), who will be his bride is a little over a week.
Shortly after Vern leaves to return to his job Beth is cruelly assaulted and killed in a robbery of her father’s store. Vern makes it his mission to find the man who murdered his love. The only clue he has is the word “Chuck-a-Luck,” which was the dying utterance of the killer’s ill-fated partner (John Doucette).
The winding trail eventually leads Vern to the Chuck-a-Luck ranch owned by Altar Keane (Dietrich). The ranch serves as a hideout for robbers, including Altar’s longtime boyfriend Frenchy (Ferrer). Altar gets a 10% cut for providing sanctuary and not asking questions.
Vern believes Beth’s killer is at the ranch… but which man is it? One evening Altar wears a brooch which had been his gift to Beth, and Vern realizes she may hold the answer he’s looking for…
Like The Furies, Rancho Notorious called to mind the later Johnny Guitar (1954), though I think in this case the comparison is even more apt. Like Vienna in the later movie, Dietrich’s Altar presides as queen over a bunch of rowdy men at a “palace” she owns in the middle of nowhere.
Instead of the “Johnny Guitar” theme song sung by Peggy Lee, in this film we have the “Legend of Chuck-a-Luck,” sung by a different Lee, Bill – no relation to Peggy. Bill Lee’s impressive screen dubbing credits included Matt Mattox in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), John Kerr in South Pacific (1958), Rod Taylor in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), and Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music (1965).
I was particularly amused to see Frank Ferguson as one of the crooks hiding at Altar’s ranch, dressed all in black and looking rather as he did in Johnny Guitar two years later.
While Rancho Notorious lacks Johnny Guitar‘s notable location filming in Sedona – it seems to have been filmed on a backlot ranch, with perhaps some shooting at Iverson Ranch – it does share having some fake, almost surreal exteriors. It’s also interesting to note that despite the film’s vivid colors, this is quite a dark story.
The movie also features a curious throwback to Dietrich’s earlier Western, Destry Rides Again (1939), in which she played a character named Frenchy; the unusual name appears again here, but this time used by Ferrer’s character.
The same year Rancho Notorious was released Kennedy would play a morally ambiguous character in one of my all-time favorite Westerns, Bend of the River (1952), which I wrote about here in my very first column back in 2018. Here his Vern is equally troubled yet more admirable, and I really appreciated his character’s journey, from lighthearted romantic to bitter avenger to a spent man who completes his mission and, as the movie ends, must now face what to do with the rest of his life.
Some reviewers have complained Kennedy seems awkward romancing Dietrich late in the movie, but I think that was deliberate, and entirely the point – Vern didn’t love Altar as he did Beth, but was pursuing her to gain information. His discomfort as well as the falsity of his attraction comes through loud and clear. Kennedy is quite good throughout as the vengeful cowboy. As an aside, a couple times the thought crossed my mind that this was a part which also would have suited Van Heflin.
Dietrich’s Altar is a woman who’s essentially had an empty life, save perhaps her relationship with Frenchy, and she’s just facing up to that fact near movie’s end. One of the most vivid scenes is of a somewhat raunchy saloon “race,” told in flashback, but while the character is ostensibly having a great time, the sequence struck me as very sad, illustrating Altar’s lack of self-respect or restraint.
Ferrer’s Frenchy is something of an anti-hero: He’s clearly a bad guy, yet he is devoted to Altar and, compared to some of the creeps who hang out at Chuck-a-Luck, he seems almost noble. The relationship which develops between Frenchy and Vern is one of the more interesting aspects of the movie — one good, one bad, seemingly in competition for Altar, but ultimately they have each other’s back. And by movie’s end, Vern has gone to such a dark place that perhaps there’s no longer a great deal of difference between the two men.
Gloria Henry is onscreen only briefly, early in the film, yet her shadow hangs over the rest of the film, rather as Coleen Gray does as John Wayne‘s lost love in Red River (1948). Henry was in a number of “B” Westerns during her film career, including a couple with Gene Autry. She was best known for starring in TV’s Dennis the Menace (1959-63). Henry passed away fairly recently, in April 2021.
Rancho Notorious has a huge cast, with a remarkable assemblage of great character “faces” playing roles of various sizes, including George Reeves, Jack Elam, William Frawley, Harry Woods, Lane Chandler, Fuzzy Knight, I. Stanford Jolley, Dan Seymour, Russell Johnson, Kermit Maynard, Pierce Lyden, Harry Lauter, Dick Elliott, Lloyd Gough, and Emory Parnell. It’s great fun for a Western fan to mentally name each actor in turn as he appears on screen.
All in all, I found Rancho Notorious a very worthwhile 89 minutes. I’d go so far as to say it’s essential ’50s Western viewing, which should be seen alongside Anthony Mann‘s The Furies and Nicholas Ray‘s Johnny Guitar for an appreciation of notable women’s Western roles in what might be called the “stylized Western melodrama” subgenre.
The Warner Archive Blu-ray is a lovely print which online sources say is a new 4K master from the original nitrate Technicolor negative. The soundtrack is strong and clear. The disc contains optional English subtitles, but there are no extras.
I recommend both the film and this Blu-ray release.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.
I enjoyed your write-up, Laura. I saw Rancho Notorious a few years ago, when it was part of Criterion’s Western noir series. Although I enjoyed all of the films, this one wasn’t among the ones I found to be most memorable. And I mean that literally — I really don’t remember much about it. But your calling it essential viewing makes me want to give it another chance.
Thank you so much for thoughts, Karen. I’d be very interested to know what you think when you revisit it, pro or con!
Laura, good write-up of RANCHO NOTORIOUS(filmed 1951, released 1952). I think you like this quirky, goofball, surreal, melodramatic, and psychological Western Movie more than I do. Although its charm has grown on me over the years. This movie eluded me for many years, but I finally caught up with it on the GOOD TIMES PICTURE SHOW hosted by Ray Nielson on the PBS station AETN, Conway, Arkansas in 1995. I have a DVD of it and have viewed it more than once. I still can’t quite get over the song “Legend of Chuck-a-Luck.” I suppose it acts as a kind of Greek chorus pushing the narrative along. The vivid scene of Altar Keane(Marlene Dietrich) riding astraddle a saloon buddy in a surreal horse race is something to see, along with the other saloon gals astride their steeds.
Regarding the location shooting, which was for the most part, on a backlot ranch with obvious painted backdrops, which gives the outdoor settings an almost surrealness. I checked IMDb and the filming locations listed are Western Street Republic Studios, Motion Picture Center Studios, and General Service Studios. Well, this listing is incomplete because there are filmed outdoor scenes in the movie. The one scene in particular which has everyone at the corral watching Vern Haskell(Arthur Kennedy) riding a bronc while Mort Geary(Jack Elam) and Jeff Factor(John Kellogg) ride down the hillside trail. You write that these scenes were perhaps filmed at Iverson Ranch. Well, this triggered my memory and I recall reading, some years ago, that this scene in RANCHO NOTORIOUS was filmed at Burro Flats. If the outdoor scenes were filmed here, then it was on the Sky Valley Ranch owned by Henry Silvernale and William Hall. They leased out Burro Flats to movie companies from 1939-1954. A lot of Westerns were filmed at Burro Flats. I located information on Burro Flats by way of Google Books taken from WESTERN MOVIE MAKING LOCATIONS VOL I SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA(2014) by Jerry L. Schneider. Here is the link https://books.google.com/books?id=eXZXCAAAQBAJ&pg=PT58&lpg=PT58&dq=burro+flats+hollywood+movie+site&source=bl&ots=Cwh470z6dd&sig=ACfU3U1BJxyq2Bi0tfldnSmQV6LDRAQYAA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiL3OXTh9T9AhWhmmoFHUYhD-M4KBDoAXoECAMQAw#v=onepage&q=burro%20flats%20hollywood%20movie%20site&f=false
RANCHO NOTORIOUS isn’t exactly one of my favorite Western Movies from that era, but it’s unusual and I think well worth viewing.
Look forward to your next write-up.
Walter, what great adjectives to describe this film! Though I may like it more, I agree with those word choices.
I kind of like the music, but then I like musicals in general and also Westerns with lots of music (especially WAGON MASTER). So I found the musical narrator an interesting choice. It also made me think a bit of Burl Ives’ singing commenting on the action in STATION WEST.
That is great research on the Sky Valley Ranch! Thank you so much for the info and the link, as you probably realize I love anything to do with movie locations and deeply appreciate this. I’m going to have to hunt down this book.
Great detective work from Walter re Burro Flats!
As you are, I feel certain, aware I never like to be negative whenever possible but “RANCHO NOTORIOUS” is not a favourite western of mine. Unusual in the sense that I am a fan of Fritz Lang’s films, just not this one. That flipping song is part of it! The fact that I don’t have a copy on DVD probably says it all!
As always though, I love reading your well-thought-out reviews (as well as the fun replies). Please keep up the good work.
It’s really interesting to me that you’re not much of a fan of RANCHO NOTORIOUS, as more often than not our tastes coincide. The song seems to be a real “dividing line” for some viewers!
Like you, I am typically a “glass is half full” viewer looking for the positives in any movie, but you can’t win ’em all. I very much appreciate you reading my reviews and the ensuing comments!
Next time the film turns up on TV I will make a point of giving it another chance. Always willing to be persuaded!
I’ll be really interested to hear if you land in the same place on a revisit or like it more. I’m always glad when I revisit a movie and find more enjoyment watching it in a new context.
Adding this to my never-ending to-watch list! I’m always up for a good female-centric western, and with that cast, how can I miss?
Rachel, I hope you enjoy it! This film seems to draw some mixed reactions from Western fans but as noted above I really found it worthwhile and interesting.
Would love to know what you — or any other readers — think when you get a chance to see it!