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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

RANCHO NOTORIOUS (1952)

While HIGH NOON usually gets credit (or is it blame?) for starting the trend for ubiquitous story ballads in Westerns, this Fritz Lang pic, released a few months earlier, already offers a wallapollooza of the form. Just when we start adjusting to the stylistic hurdles of Lang’s peculiar take on the genre, our singing narrator starts crooning about ‘HATE, MURDER and REVENGE,’ releasing unintentional giggles all over the place. It all started when the fiance of cowpoke Arthur Kennedy was left dying & defiled in a robbery gone wrong. Soon, he’s paired up with Mel Ferrer’s outlaw, hoping this bad man will lead him to Marlene Dietrich’s secret hideout. That’s where he thinks he’ll find the villain. Fairly standard doings in this Daniel Taradash script. But unlike Lang’s earlier Westerns, made under Darryl Zanuck’s watchful eye @ 20th/Fox, this was a Howard Hughes production, with a tight budget that found Lang mixing natural locations with unnatural studio mock-ups, a NeverNeverLand closer to the made-up West of German novelist Karl May than reality. (Hughes also may have hacked away at Lang’s preferred cut.) With acting & camera set-ups that emphasize a static relationship between objects & people, and brief tics of violence always threatening to erupt, the film needed to be ‘all of a piece’ to come off. But the tone is wildly inconsistent, which makes it hard to find a way in. Especially with that darn song popping up at just the wrong moment.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Lenser Hal Mohr last worked with Dietrich when she played Frenchy in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN/’39. This time out, Frenchy is the name of Mel Ferrer’s character. And damned if he doesn’t get all the glamor treatment. Marlene was not amused.

DOUBLE-BILL: Two years on, Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR/’54 doubled down on this film’s artificiality, with lots of help from the good folks @ TruColor processing; and a superlative score (with a delish title song worth all the ubiquity) from Victor Young, sung by Peggy Lee.

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