|Time holds us together. And time's stronger than a rope
|Nai Bonnet, "The Seventh Veil"|
I slept almost ten hours last night. It was great. I'm exhausted anyway, but I hope to repeat the exploit tonight. I dreamed of being offered a job at a used book store that specialized in Lovecraftiana, but the interviewer kept trying to put his arm around my waist and other manifestly inappropriate displays of interest, so I finally turned the job down flat. I woke and related the dream to derspatchel, who immediately responded, "Tentacles! Tentacles!" I've never had esprit de l'escalier about a dream before.
Since I've been thinking about it since my last film post: briefly, Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952). Rob and I caught it on TCM a few months ago because it starred Marlene Dietrich and we were hoping it would be better than Western Union (1941). It very definitely was. It was also pretty strange.
I must warn you in advance that I cannot explain the singing narrator. In theory, I'm all for this device: shades of Brecht and Weill's Moritatensänger, plus the thriving American folk tradition of murder ballads, of which Rancho Notorious certainly qualifies as one. In practice, it works out a lot more like Gene Autry. But even the mellow baritone and the dramatically strumming guitar cannot cheapen the full-throttle tragedy of this surprisingly nasty Western—"the old, old story of hate, murder, and revenge."
The time is the 1870's; the starting place, Wyoming. Arthur Kennedy stars as a young ranch hand whose fiancée is raped and murdered during a robbery; he turns himself into an outlaw and a double agent to find the man who did it. Dietrich and Mel Ferrer fill out the other two points of the triangle as a wolf-couple, she a former dance hall girl turned bandit queen of the Southwest, he her hard-bitten, quixotically romantic gunslinger consort.1 She owns a horse ranch near the Mexican border, named "Chuck-a-Luck" after the roulette-like game of chance that she played once at a significant moment in her life; it's a legitimate business, but it's also a hideout for any outlaw willing to fork over ten percent of his loot to Dietrich's Altar Keane, a figure of almost outrageous legend. If you ever wanted your introductory sight of Dietrich to be while literally riding a guy like a horse across a barroom floor, this is the movie for you. Ferrer's roving pistoleer Frenchy is the only man she's ever loved rather than fucked or fucked over, but he's never quite sure if he's just getting a longer run alongside her than all the other rubes; for his part he's possessively devoted, so much so that he threatens to kill her if she leaves him and in the same breath can't imagine surviving her death. Kennedy's Vern Haskell makes himself seductively available to Altar in order to draw out the identity of his man among the current tenants of Chuck-a-Luck, but it's not love she feels for him so much as a kind of wistful recognition. Frenchy correctly perceives the younger man as a threat to his mutual reign with Altar, but mistakes him for an ordinary sexual rival rather than a cold-blooded mole with an agenda. When the rising tension finally explodes, it's with much more emotional violence than I was expecting. The body count is less stunning than the aftermath.
Lang directed three Westerns. I haven't seen The Return of Frank James (1940) and I've made my feelings about Western Union clear,2 but Rancho Notorious lands every one of its operatic punches in a fascinating blend of artifice and grit. I don't care if it was made entirely on studio sets, it gets an amazing claustrophobic evocation of the Western mythos curdling out of painted sunsets and adobe-washed walls. There are no gunfights in the conventional sense; the climactic duel is a verse in a ballad and Vern's quest for vengeance comes down to a man too cowardly to draw on an armed opponent (though he thought nothing of gut-shooting a girl he'd brutally raped3). There's a fistfight that looks for all the world as though it were filmed with a handheld camera, in which case it's the earliest of its type that I've seen, and it is such a violent slugfest that the picture goes out of focus as the camera slews to follow the blows. Fair-haired, sharp-faced Kennedy has a look of James Cagney, whose brother he actually played in his 1940 film debut; onstage he originated four roles for Arthur Miller and I think he must have been a barnstorming John Proctor, because he has a disturbing, nervy energy that coils underneath Vern's quick smile. He looks like a wicked boy, but he's carved out more of his heart than even hardboiled Altar Keane. I have difficulty imagining the film in a later decade, because I can't imagine other actors in two of the three principal roles, but I didn't know that Westerns that deliberately anti-romantic—mythological, yes, but there's nothing remotely noble about any of the men crashing at Chuck-a-Luck—were being filmed as early as 1952. See it if you get the chance; I'm sure its Technicolor would benefit from a big screen. That was not exactly a brief description. This digression sponsored by my fantastic backers at Patreon.
1. I don't blame Fritz Lang for this, but it was difficult for me not to view them as a kind of het remix of Chess and Rook from Gemma Files' Hexslinger series. If that's an incentive for you to check out Rancho Notorious, I say go for it.
2. That said, it interests me that both Western Union and Rancho Notorious can be described as films noirs—give Vern an underworld to navigate instead of a frontier and he'd make himself just as dreadfully at home—but the latter is not simply a noir redressed in Western style. It would not be possible for Altar and Frenchy to exist in New York or L.A. or Chicago, even if they could thrive as a mobster and her moll, because it is central to both their legends and their lives that they can disappear into the vast spaces of the land, not the snaky twists of a city. That's such a crucial, dangerous piece of the Western myth—the land where there's space for everyone, except the people who lived there first.
3. We learn very little about Gloria Henry's Beth Forbes in her few minutes onscreen before the refrigerator door swings open, but we know she fought: she marked her man. Lang's last sight of her trails from her closed eyes across her bruised shoulder, down her arm in its torn sleeve until the camera reaches her hand, loosely curled, bloodied nails still sticky and wet. The doctor says soberly, "She wasn't spared anything."