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Review: Rancho Notorious

Watched Rancho Notorious on the Criterion Channel. This Technicolor-drenched Old Hollywood cowboy picture should represent something of a stylistic departure for director Fritz Lang, who is best known nowadays for his sprawling silent epics (Metropolis, Die Nibelungen) and moody, expressionistic German thrillers (M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). In terms of its themes, however, it fits perfectly into his body of work—the psychosexual subtext and morally ambiguous characters owe a far greater debt to film noir than they do to John Ford’s more traditional take on the Western genre. It even features a textbook example of a femme fatale: Marlene Dietrich’s Altar Keane, a former saloon singer turned crooked rancher. Indeed, while Arthur Kennedy’s vengeful gunslinger is the nominal “hero” of the story, the conflict revolves entirely around Keane, who hides her deeply repressed guilt and vulnerability behind a facade of uncompromising, unapologetic confidence.

Rancho Notorious doesn’t always live up to Dietrich’s thoroughly captivating performance; the tone shifts frequently and abruptly enough to cause whiplash, and it’s glaringly obvious that the demands of the American studio system severely diminished Lang’s creative energy. Ultimately, though, the movie’s competently crafted plot and unconventional narrative twists overcome such inconsequential blemishes.

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