Everyone who knows and loves Westerns will recall the miraculous first shot of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Ford's Stagecoach. With his Winchester in hand, John Wayne appears on horseback, a beautiful and archaic vision, and the camera tracks toward him so rapidly that, for a moment, his face goes out of focus -- it's as if appearance in the midst of the buttes and desert has somehow unhinged the camera, made it swoon. The image takes your breath away. In his 1952 Western, Rancho Notorious, Fritz Lang reprises this image in an extraordinary shot introducing his leading lady, Marlene Dietrich. Like John Wayne, Dietrich is astride a horse, although in this image, her steed is a drunken cowboy at the brothel where she works. Her "horse" rears up and, then, she goads him with her heels in a race with other inebriated cowboys all of them mounted by whores. The image tracks the men as they creep forward, climbing over various obstacles, ducking under wire, until the perverse race reaches the finish line. Dietrich looks stunning and Lang understands that it's not enough to devise and frame a wonderful static image -- the picture has to move, hence, the frenetic action as the saloon girls drive the men they are riding toward the finish line at the other end of the bar-room. (Certainly, Fellini had this image in mind when he has Marcello Mastrioanni ride the prostitute in the orgy scene in La Dolce Vita -- Lang's version, however, is more startling and kinkier, more perverse.) The sequence is recounted as a flashback, a story told to the film's hero, a cowboy named Vern (played by Arthur Kennedy) and the image has some of the mythical quality of memory, a sort of archetype recalled after many years. Vern is looking for a place called "Chuck-a-Luck", a robber's roost where the villain who raped and murdered his fiancée is hiding. "Chuck-a-Luck", in fact, is the name of the ranch near the Mexican border ruled by the imperious and regal Dietrich, playing an aging saloon girl retired to manage a band of criminals staging hold-ups and bank robberies across the southwest. At "Chuck-a-Luck" there's only one rule: you can't ask questions because everyone has a criminal past. Of course, Vern ultimately infiltrates "Chuck-a-Luck", participates in a bank robbery, and, finally, guns down the rapist and murderer in a climactic battle at the ranch. The film is equipped with a cowboy ballad, although the music sounds more than a little operatic, and, after the final gun fight, the baritone reminds us that his song is about "hate, murder, and revenge." This is the rather Wagnerian motif that ends each stanza of the "Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck" and we hear it first intoned over the opening credits -- indeed, the words are sung when the title announces that the film is directed by Fritz Lang. (The effect is a little like the opening of The Wild Bunch in which one of the bandits holding townspeople hostage cries out "Kill them all!" just as the credit "Directed by Sam Peckinpah" is displayed.) "Hate, murder, and revenge", of course, are Lang's signature subjects and he has Arthur Kennedy glower with rage, his eyes bugged out, and his posture distorted like a dwarf -- he actually stoops and twitches like Alberich in the Ring of the Nibelungs deformed by hatred.
Although only 87 minutes long, Rancho Notorious is packed with action. After the brutal Kinch rapes and murders Vern's chaste sweetheart (and, then, kills the bad man's sexually ambiguous sidekick), the hero sets out to find the villain and punish him. Along the trail, Vern learns that a woman named Altar Keane, a famous Western courtesan, is somehow involved. Lang treats us to some flashbacks involving Keane's adventures and we see how she meets her loyal boyfriend, Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), the fastest gun in the West -- he has helped her out when she plays "chuck-a-luck", that is, a roulette game, in the saloon where she has just been fired for insubordination; she's insulted the owner and whore-master, Baldy, played with sinister aplomb by Wm. Frawley (remember him as "Bub" on My Three Sons?). Altar Keane has used her winnings from the roulette game to buy a remote hacienda a few miles from the Mexican border. There she supervises a gang of nine bandits, bad men who periodically depart from Rancho Notorious to rob banks, stages, and trains. These bad guys include poor George Reeves, Tv's Superman, his handsome rock jaw, scarred by claw marks (a woman, Vern assumes, although Reeves claims it was a panther that disfigured him.) Dietrich looks spectacular in her tight jeans and she sits like a man with her legs spread wide apart; in close-ups, her face is an impassive Kabuki-like mask -- inhumanly perfect and inexpressive. To entertain the boys, she sometimes sings for them -- by the evidence in the film, performing tunes that sound like Berlin cabaret music with lyrics by Brecht and melody by Weill. Periodically, Lang indulges in the exquisitely staged violence that made him famous: there's a horrific fistfight in a barber shop and a couple of explosive gun duels. Lang always stages these sequences with more fury than the viewer expects -- the violence is more abrupt, savage, and physically tangible than the surrounding story and images: it stands apart as something particularly ferocious and indelible. When a bank robbery goes awry, one of the bandits is shot and falls backward in a narrow doorway -- there are two other robbers in the doorway and the man who has been hit by the bullet can't fall down because the other bandits are in his way; instead, he twists to the side, slumping between two other men who are frantically firing their six-guns -- the effect is weirdly balletic and, also, statuesque: the falling man and those surrounding him form a sculptural tableaux. In the same scene, when someone is shot off a horse, the person doesn't just drop to the ground -- they crash face-first into the earth.
The film is in Technicolor and looks great. There are orange sunsets with riders moving through badlands and, then, a shot of a forlorn coyote howling at the sky. The outlaws form a rogue's gallery that Lang depicts in massive, matching close-up, each man scowling at the camera. There's nifty dialogue: someone praises death by hanging -- "It's quiet as eating a banana." Above Chuck-a-luck, there's a strange mountain pass, a high point walled with mauve sandstone ramparts -- the scene is obviously shot on a sound-stage, but so oddly unnatural as to be surrealistically memorable. An insert shows Chuck-a-Luck far below, a little hacienda in the great desert. The sandstone walls are, perhaps, intended as natural but they look man-made because, of course, they are man-made, parapets, I suppose, contrived from paper-mache. When Altar Keane takes a bullet to save her boyfriend, her breast flowers with a great red wound and she drops decorously to the foot of her bed -- the bed is also covered with mauve fabric. A posse sets forth in a night-for-day shot: We see them riding through a canyon with stark, stony walls -- the walls have profiles like Easter Island idols -- and the sky caught between the canyon walls has the bruised, turbulent darkness in the clouds in Jacob van Ruisdael's great painting, "The Jewish Cemetery". The film is a genre piece but memorably enlivened by little cinematic touches that are pure poetry. (Dietrich's dominatrix queen of the ranch was an image that seems to have made a powerful impact on other film makers in the fifties: Joan Crawford, in tight breeches and flannel shirt, plays a variant on the part in the 1954 Johnny Guitar and, later, Barbara Stanwyck also plays a similar role in Sam Fuller's lurid 1958 Forty Guns.)