Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 15, 2023)
When I think of director Fritz Lang, I think of German expressionist classics like Metropolis and M. Lang’s name doesn’t conjure images of Westerns, but Lang nonetheless confronted that genre with 1952’s Rancho Notorious, the third of his three tales under that umbrella.
Set in the 1870s, Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) intends to marry Beth Forbes (Gloria Henry). However, she dies during a robbery.
When Vern embarks on the pursuit of vengeance, he winds up at “Chuck-a-Luck”, a ranch Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) operates as a haven for criminals. Vern impersonates an outlaw as he gets deep into his crusade.
That sounds like a solid premise for a Western. With that intriguing concept and the talent involved, I went into Rancho with moderately high expectations.
Unfortunately, the end result doesn’t live up to those hopes. While not a bad film, Rancho tends to meander too much for its own good.
The biggest issue stems from the amount of time Rancho requires to get to the point. On the positive side, it starts off with a bang, as it gets us into the main plot quickly and efficiently.
From there, though, matters stall. As Vern sets out to find those who killed Beth, he takes the long way around and it feels like the movie loses sight of this quest too often.
This means the movie loses track of Vern for somewhat long stretches as it digs into Altar’s history. These moments don’t really add to the narrative and feel more like excuses to pad Dietrich’s screen time.
A solid character actor, Kennedy seems a bit out of place as our lead, especially because the movie requires him to play a romantic character. Kennedy didn’t have the right look or charisma for a role like this, so he leaves a bit of a hole at the heart of the film.
Dietrich brings reasonable presence to Altar, but she also feels off here, mainly because she never makes the part seem as rough ‘n’ tumble as she should. Though Dietrich boasts star appeal, she doesn’t connect to her role in a meaningful manner.
My primary complaint here remains the unfocused nature of the narrative itself. Rancho offers too short a running time to go off-track as often as this one does.
Vern’s quest for revenge should stay at the center, but it gets semi-forgotten too much of the time. Rancho seems to enjoy its explorations of Altar and various outlaws more than its main plot, and this leads to a loose narrative without much visceral impact.
Despite these drawbacks, the talent involved here makes Rancho reasonably watchable. It just fails to hit the mark like it should.