Sunday, September 22, 2013

Rancho Notorious & The Spoilers

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 

Rancho Notorious - dir. Fritz Lang. 1952. BAM.

An urban crime drama disguised as a Western. In order to revenge the rape and murder of his wife, Arthur Kennedy must infiltrate the culprit’s hideout, a ranch/outlaw commune run by Marlene Dietrich.

-- Juicy, pulpy nihilism that reminded me a little of Sam Fuller, only the vibe is more silk than muscle. Hard, saturated colors just as expressive—and Expressionist—as noir chiaroscuro. The characters reminded me of poisonous snakes, with their bright, deadly colors and oily shine. These aren’t the strong, silent, stolid, mountain-of-a-man Western types. They’re all crooks and freaks. Kennedy is a lean everyman gone bad who just keeps getting skinnier as the hate eats away at him. The rapist is a normal-seeming psychopath-next-door type by William Fawley, best remembered as Fred Mertz, the next-door-neighbor in I Love Lucy. Kennedy infiltrates Fawley’s hideout by winning the trust of Dietrich’s beau, the slick, romantic criminal “Frenchie Fairomont” (Mel Ferrer). The hideout is populated by a perverse preacher (“Praying for Mammon has ever been my infirmity.”) and another implied serial rapist, played, creepily enough, by television’s Superman, George Reeves, whose baby face is blighted by a phallic facial scar which may or may not have been inflicted by one of his victims. And of course there is Dietrich.

-- There is a sinister relish of death and violence in this film. There is the blunt theme song/recurring musical voiceover narration, with its thudding, unrhymed chorus, “Hate/ Murder/ and Revenge.” Death by hanging is described by one character as “a clean way to die, and quiet as eating a banana.” After Arthur Kennedy kills a man in a shockingly violent fist fight—filmed in a hard-hitting close-up with a camera so mobile it feels hand-held—the autopsist rattles off a litany of the victim’s injuries—broken this, severed that—to conclude, almost admiringly, “In other words: he’s real dead.”

The rape/murder of Kennedy’s wife, Gloria Henry, exemplifies the film’s seediness. She dies in a routine robbery gone wrong. The criminal enters the general store where she works while she is alone. He demands at gunpoint that she open the safe. She takes him to the back and starts unlocking the safe, but then she pauses and looks at the him (at the camera, which happens to be occupying his point of view) with such wide-open, terrified eyes (perhaps borrowed from Peter Lorre in the climax of M) that we know what’s coming next. A movie character doesn’t get that scared, or rather that kind of scared, just because she’s being robbed. She knows that the safe is empty, and what’s more, she knows that the shot of the empty safe, followed by the shot of anger and lust awakening in the robber’s eyes, is going to be the gross visual metaphor that will seal her fate.

Exterior shot of the store: We hear a scream, then a gunshot, and then see the criminal run out and ride away. Some one fetches Kennedy and he rides back to town with his back to the sun, his silhouette pitch black, to the sound of thundering drum and brass. He arrives at the store, pushes through the horrified crowd gathered inside, and the doctor breaks the news to him, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but they didn’t spare her anything.”—this being, of course, just about the worst way to tell him. A euphemism that, like all euphemisms, masks not so much what it describes as the obscene delight one takes in imagining what it describes. As the doctor tells Kennedy this, we get a close up of a look we’re going to see a lot of from Kennedy: face tightened in anger, bugged-out, hateful eyes burning like sulfur (what eyes in this film!). The next shot is tawdry indeed: a close-up of wifey’s lifeless face panning down to past her torn blouse collar—another lurid visual euphemism—and then down her arm to finally rest on her curled, claw-like hand (also borrowed from Lorre), frozen with rigor mortis and a still dripping with the blood of her attacker, a harrowing image of futile self-defense.

-- Alongside all this morbidity, weird romance. Kennedy first encounters Frenchie in jail. When asked how he, such a well known and savvy criminal, got himself caught, Frenchie says he couldn't resist going into town to buy perfume for Dietrich. When Kennedy and Frenchie break jail and are fleeing from town with the law on their tail, Frenchie pauses to smash the window of the parfumerie and take what he came to town for. The death-bound quality of their romance echoes in a strange bit of romantic dialogue: "Time holds us together. And time's stronger than a rope." She is his Older Woman, and he is her Pretty Young Thing.

-- Dietrich does all the things Dietrich does: night club croons, wears pants, sits in chairs backwards, cocks her eyebrow like a pistol, generally dominates the men around her with the poise of a lion tamer. Her outlaw queen character is appropriately named “Alter,” reflecting not only the queerness of her persona but what she does to the film. Prior to the film arriving at Dietrich’s ranch, most of the outdoors scenes actually take place outdoors, on studio lots and occasionally on location. When we arrive at the ranch, however, many of the outdoor scenes are noticeably filmed indoors. There are shots where you can actually see the corner of the studio wall or creases in the background painting. Kennedy and Dietrich start to develop feelings for each other (or are they just using each other?), and the closer he gets, the weirder the film starts to look. Their romance climaxes in a sunset scene on a desert mountain filmed in a garishly painted, orange and pink set full of weird, geometrically-shaped rocks.

-- Dietrich’s weird outlaw commune is called Chuck-a-Luck, an awkward name from a roulette-like gambling game involving a large, vertical wheel that I suppose is meant to evoke the Wheel of Fate. The place reminds one of the society of criminals in M. There is a utopian dimension to it—they all live and work and break bread together in this autonomous pirate enclave where the only rule is that you don’t get nosey about anyone’s past. And yet, at they same time, they are all pretty bad dudes. There is not a rehab center: Marlene gets 10% of every heist. The utopian community remains structured by exclusions. Dietrich says that everyone who stays at Chuck-a-Luck has to do their part. But some parts are bigger than others. We never really see the outlaws do any ranch work—they just spend their days practicing shooting and their nights partying and gambling away their booty with Marlene. The real ranch work seems more the responsibility of the group of Mexican and American Indian hired hands Marlene keeps around in order to maintain the front of a legitimate business. One of the hired hands confides in Kennedy that they work under constant threat of death: one worker was disappeared after drunkenly letting slip a word about the true nature of the ranch in town. Chuck-a-Luck symbolizes the two sides of the conquest of the West: on the one hand a chance to start anew, a utopian realm of freedom and social experimentation, but, on the other hand, all achieved through a process of primitive accumulation, racial domination, and exploitation.

The Spoilers - dir. Ray Enright. 1942. BAM.

Corrupt officials try to claim-jump John Wayne during the Klondike gold rush in more ways than one, going after both his mine and his old flame, saloon gal Marlene Dietrich.

Set in Nome, Alaska. It must have been pretty uncomfortable for the actors to wear all those layers in the 70-degree California studio lot they were clearing filming in.

A libertarian fantasy. Everything seems to be just fine in Nome. People manage on their own in a society organized by the market. Until the forces of Law and Order come to town in the form of a crooked judge and a gold commissioner. Government is portrayed as a cartel of powerful, connected individuals set on wrecking the harmonious, lawless, market society by using legal trickery to steal away what humble gold miners have theoretically won through their own hard work. The miners get together and boot the corrupt officials out.

The above clip is the culmination of the excruciatingly racist comic relief provided by Dietrich's house servant, Idabelle (Marietta Canty). In scene after scene, Canty is forced to dutifully listen to Dietrich complain about her unsatisfied cunt and to recite dialogue about how, I shit you not, they ain't no watuhmelon in Alaska. Southern states are name checked--It sho' is colder in Alaska than Georgia! They ain't no coluh'd boys neither an ya gets tired uh pree-tendin' that them Eskimo boys is from Vuhginia!--because that's where black people are from, do you get it?! John Wayn robs a bank in blackface--I guess they were out of pointed hoods--and, wouldn't you know it, this clever way of disguising his identity is so convincing, even Idabelle is fooled!

The racism is not just textual, but a reflexive part of its visual storytelling. At one point Idabelle is sent out of the room to fetch some refreshment. In her absence an extravagant fist-fight breaks out between John Wayne and the gold commissioner. The following shot is thrown in as a joke: Idabelle walks in on the fight, goes bug-eyed, and drops the plate of refreshments she had had been sent to fetch. This is the funniest thing a Negro can do: fuck up at serving white people.

I'm rarely offended by what I see at the movies, but I couldn't abide being subjected to the laughter of long-dead racists. The reaction of the audience at BAM was unfortunate. It was mostly old white people. You can only give a dry, ironic laugh at this kind of antiquated, racist nonsense for so long until your laugh starts sounding not so dry, not so ironic, and the racism starts seeming a bit less antique. This is the second film I've seen at BAM with Surprise Blackface. Enter the Fat Dragon also had a white man in blackface dressed up like Jim Kelly from Enter the Dragon. It's all the more shocking to see at BAM, an institution that devotes a significant portion of programing in cinema, theater, dance, and music to black American and African artists. Not that BAM is to blame. Maybe it's just part of the risk of repertory cinema programming. You never know what bizarre and offensive things might be buried in these old, obscure films. The real test is in how one reacts to it, and I'm not sure we passed.

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