“I love westerns [because] they are based on a simple and essential ethical code,” Fritz Lang said in a 1959 Cahiers du Cinema interview. “The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world.”
Lang’s westerns are unique in cinema history. The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952) offer rugged individualism that differs from the epic grandeur of John Ford and Howard Hawks, thereby paving the way for the 1950s psychological westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher. The Austrian-German director utilizes the genre to study the nature of revenge, corruption, redemption and loss — recurring themes throughout his 41-year career.
How did an influential filmmaker find a niche in westerns? First of all, Lang was fascinated by the American West and understood its mythology. “The western is not only the history of this country, it is what the Saga of Nibelungen is for the European,” he explained in Peter Bogdanovich’s critical study Fritz Lang in America (1967). “The development of this country is unimaginable without the days of the Wild West.”
Lang also was intrigued by the American Indian culture and lived on a Navajo reservation for several weeks in 1935 while MGM kept him on hold and waited for his one-year contract with the studio to expire. However, the director fought back and soon made Fury (1936), a disturbing study of mob rule and obsessive vengeance — social themes that would be explored in his westerns.
In 1940, Darryl Zanuck gave Lang the opportunity to make his first western for 20th Century-Fox, a sequel to director Henry King’s Jesse James (1939). When asked why he allowed Lang to make a western, the producer responded, “Because he’ll see things we don’t.”
Zanuck was correct in his assessment. The Return of Frank James can be considered one of the first noir westerns. Lang’s attention to detail and atmosphere dominates this unusual tale of revenge. The film has a look and feel unlike any western of the period as he elevates the genre to a higher visual and moral plane.
The Return of Frank James also marked a cinematic advance for Lang with its use of Technicolor and location photography, resulting in some magnificent shots of the High Sierras. For a largely studio-bound filmmaker, this was literally a breath of fresh air.
Lang liked the Frank James script and had the freedom to make what few changes he deemed necessary. However, due to the restrictive Production Code, the character of Frank James (reprised by Henry Fonda) was unable to seek retribution for his brother’s murder and, in fact, did not kill a single individual. Instead, the men who killed Jesse — Bob and Charlie Ford — die by other means.
At its core, The Return of Frank James examines the struggle of the individual (Frank) versus the system (the railroad company). Lang opens his film with the last scene from Jesse James (an interesting parallel to the director’s two-part Die Nibelungen saga) as the traitorous Ford brothers shoot Jesse in the back. After a noirish montage of newspaper headlines trumpeting Jesse’s death, Frank is found enjoying a farmer’s life of peace and anonymity. He is a man reluctant to seek revenge. “There ain’t gonna be no trouble,” he assures his youthful friend Clem (Jackie Cooper).
However, this relative calm proves short-lived when Frank learns that the governor of Missouri has pardoned the Fords. Twisting the blade further, the brothers receive the reward money. Since it was the railroad’s money that “put Jesse in his grave,” Frank (in a subtle form of revenge) decides to rob the company in order to finance his Ford expedition, which takes him to Denver.
In one of the film’s best scenes, Frank attends a theatrical production in which the “heroic” Ford brothers re-enact Jesse’s murder. Sitting in a darkened balcony, Frank watches the melodrama unfold and rises to let his presence be known. When the cowardly Fords see Frank, they run in terror.
What follows is a picturesque chase through the Sierras — a spectacular action sequence that reveals Germanic atmosphere in Lang’s architectural rock formations and his use of dead trees in the foreground. The chase ends in a gunfight between Frank and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen), which results in Charlie falling to his death. Lang’s omission of background music and dialogue strengthens the tension and excitement of this scene — nothing is heard but the sound of gunfire.
At the halfway mark, the story takes an unexpected turn when Frank abruptly ends his quest for Bob Ford (John Carradine) and returns to Liberty, Missouri, in order to save his servant Pinky (Ernest Whitman) who was framed for murder by the railroad company. The film unexpectedly evolves into a bitter and sometimes comical courtroom battle which ends in Frank’s exoneration by Southern sympathizers. The Civil War resentments between the Northern prosecution and the Southern defense are startling; at one point, Frank’s attorney (who works as a newspaper editor) calls the railroad detective “Yankee scum.”
Once Frank is acquitted, he is free to track down Bob Ford. However, an off-camera gunfight occurs in which Clem dies after shooting Ford. What follows is the film’s most noirish scene as Frank confronts the mortally-wounded Ford in a darkened barn. From a psychological perspective, Lang’s ominous and foreboding interior settings reveal Ford’s dying moments as those of a trapped animal. When Frank finds Ford’s body, he has the satisfaction of seeing his brother avenged: “That’s the other one, Jesse.”
The Return of Frank James ends optimistically with Frank returning to his Missouri farm, though Lang offers a provocative image in the final shot. Riding out of town, Frank passes a tattered “wanted” poster of the James brothers; the wind strips away the names of Frank and Jesse as the film fades out.
Lang’s attention to historic and human details also play an integral role in Western Union — a fictitious account of the telegraph line’s evolution in the 1860s. Generally acknowledged as the first epic-scale western in Technicolor, the 1941 Fox production is the most conventional of Lang’s Hollywood endeavors. Regrettably, producer Zanuck decided that Lang should film Robert Carson’s exposition-heavy screenplay as written. Had the director been allowed to make his proposed script changes, Western Union might have emerged as a darker, less formulaic western.
Despite the excessive comic relief and overemphasis on romance, Lang was able to incorporate some of his fatalistic vision into the proceedings, embodied by the character of Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) — a reformed outlaw hired as a scout for the telegraph company. Lang’s individual shadings add moments of realism to what could have been an overblown Cecil B. DeMille-type spectacle.
Once again, Lang shot on location — utilizing portions of Kanab, Utah, and Arizona’s House Rock Canyon. Compared to The Return of Frank James, the landscape of Western Union is more expansive with its canyon ranges and jagged desert rocks. However, the interiors remain appropriately Langian.
Western Union is a standout among Lang’s westerns for its emphasis on technological progress and the coming of civilization. In one scene, Shaw tells outlaw leader Jack Slade (Barton MacLane), “You can’t fight a thing as big and important as the Western Union.” Symbolically, the telegraph’s arrival marks the beginning of the West’s demise.
Lang depicts Indian culture in a mostly sympathetic light. Shaw takes a more pacifist approach towards the Indians than his romantic rival, Richard Blake (Robert Young), a naive Easterner who prefers killing the “savages.” There is a great moment when Shaw knocks out Blake after the city slicker unnecessarily shoots an inebriated Indian.
Later in the film, Shaw and telegraph boss Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) receive the tribal chief’s permission to extend their wire through Indian territory. However, in Lang’s work, nothing is what it seems. After “Indians” attack the telegraph crew, it turns out they are members of Slade’s gang in disguise. The outlaws call themselves “guerrillas for the Confederacy” — opportunists who exploit the Civil War by justifying their criminal acts.
In the film’s most impressive action scene, Slade and his gang ignite a devastating forest fire that encircles the company camp. It is an elaborate, studio-created blaze that rivals the flood in Metropolis (1927). Lang’s use of color provides a brilliant fusion of flames and shadow, which makes for a terrifying sequence.
For all its epic grandeur, the narrative force of Western Union lies in Shaw’s moral struggle. Predictably, Shaw finds himself in the middle of the Slade/Western Union conflict and, because of his past, does not fully side with the telegraph company. Only after Creighton fires Shaw does the reformed outlaw reveal that Slade is his brother, thereby leading to the obligatory showdown between Shaw and Slade — a Cain and Abel parallel that leads to Shaw’s death and redemption.
As in The Return of Frank James, Lang’s directorial touches lend a naturalistic quality to the Shaw/Slade shootout. “There is one scene in which [Shaw] — who has had his hands burned in a forest fire and has them bandaged — goes to the traditional last fight,” Lang told Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang in America. “[Shaw] takes the bandages off his right hand, and stretches his fingers to see if they are usable for the draw. This is the kind of touch that makes people believe in things.”
Ironically, Western Union features the most expressionistic shot in Lang’s westerns. In a stark composition, the viewer sees Shaw’s grave with telegraph poles standing sentinel in the background. The inscription on the grave reveals that Shaw was buried as an employee of Western Union. It is a tragic yet fitting conclusion.
Western Union was an influential film in its breakthrough casting of Randolph Scott. As Vance Shaw, the actor revealed a darker edge that later would be explored in his collaborations with director Budd Boetticher. Lang was the first filmmaker to recognize these brooding qualities in Scott (just as Alfred Hitchcock later would discover the same undertones in Cary Grant).
The commercial success of Western Union enabled Lang to return to the psychological thrillers that best suited him. Another decade passed before he again directed a western — this time for RKO. Rancho Notorious was Lang’s last western and, in many ways, his finest. One of his bleakest works, the film also served as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, whose inimitable screen presence almost verged on self-parody.
Rancho Notorious is a perverse, stylized B-movie that distorts reality in its use of artificial backdrops and shadowy interiors. Though largely a set-bound film, Lang reveals a painter’s eye in his moody, ominous shots of the sky and landscape. (The exteriors may have been second-unit work, but the look is distinctively Langian.) There also are expressionistic camera angles and grim close-ups that depict a claustrophobic, emotionally repressed environment.
Film scholar Jim Kitses observed in his influential 1969 book Horizons West that “strange and powerful works such as Rancho Notorious have been refused entry [into the genre] because they are somehow ‘not westerns.’ This impulse may well be informed by a fear that unless the form is defined precisely . . . it will disappear, wraith-like, from under our eyes.”
It is ironic that critical limitations were placed on the most expansive of film genres. With the exception of Western Union, none of Lang’s westerns are considered “traditional” works. Rancho Notorious defies rigid generalization and compares favorably to the artistry of director Anthony Mann. In Lang’s films, as well as those of Mann, fate deals the hero a nasty blow; however, with Lang, there is less emphasis on the hero’s struggle to resolve his own psychological malaise.
As in Mann’s work, there is a sense of loss that pervades Rancho Notorious, beginning with the murder of Vern Haskell’s (Arthur Kennedy) fiancée and his endless, obsessive quest for her killers. The film’s flashback sequence emphasizes Altar Keane’s (Dietrich) faded glamour and social standing, though her mystique remains intact. Finally, there is outlaw Frenchy Fairmont’s (Mel Ferrer) loss when Altar takes the bullet meant for him.
Rancho Notorious incorporates elements of sadism and sexuality that became more prevalent in 1950s westerns. There is the symbolic inference of rape when Vern’s fiancée reluctantly opens the safe while Kinch menaces her; after her murder, the doctor tells Vern that “she wasn’t spared anything.” During the flashback sequence, we see Altar and the other dance-hall girls participating in a “horse race” with the saloon customers. Later in the film, Frenchy and Vern engage in a shooting competition that suggests phallic symbolism. When Vern equates Altar’s bedroom to a morgue before the final gunfight, the sexual expressiveness is complete.
Lang also wreaks vengeance on Hollywood’s Production Code by making revenge an integral part of the story, even though Vern does not kill the men responsible for his fiancée’s murder. “The revenge theme was so dominant that it could not be diverted, and was allowable because virtually everybody wound up dead,” film historian William K. Everson wrote in his 1992 book The Hollywood Western. “It was surely no coincidence that a ballad sung during the credits concluded with the emphasized words ‘hate, murder and revenge’ just as the credit ‘Directed by Fritz Lang’ flashed on screen.”
Social status plays an ironic role in this film. At one point, it is noted that Altar prefers cowpunchers to cattle barons. In fact, she forms a community of outlaws at the “Chuck-a-Luck” ranch not unlike the criminal organization in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse series. Along with her dominance and self-assurance, Altar speaks the film’s most philosophical line: “Time is stronger than a rope.”
There are two communities in Rancho Notorious: “Chuck-a-Luck” and the corrupt town of “Gunsight.” Despite the town’s emphasis on upholding the law, the sheriff is in cahoots with the disgraced politicians (“Give me an outlaw to these thieves anytime,” Vern says) and later is voted out of office in the “Citizens vs. Law and Order” election. Nevertheless, evil dominates, especially when the law is not carried out to its full extent.
What makes Rancho Notorious a pessimistic western is Lang’s belief that man remains a lost individual resigned to his own fate. In the final analysis, the West of Fritz Lang represents an emotional wasteland as Vern and Frenchy ride off in mourning to face an uncertain future. “We all get taken sooner or later.”