Fritz Lang’s Western Flirtations
Fritz Lang is most well known for his early German Expressionist work, his contribution to film noir, and his devotion to wearing a monocle. Sadly, his foray into the Western genre has been mostly overlooked in favor of his other work – though often considered anomolies, Lang’s Westerns can be seen as more in keeping with the style and themes of his better known noir films than it would appear on the surface. Noted for his attention to detail, interior spaces, dark undertones, and focus on themes of crime, punishment and redemption – these are the same elements notable in the three Westerns Lang made.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the masters of noir was a fan of Westerns. Lang liked its simple codes and well-defined rules. In his own words (quoted in Cahiers du Cinema in 1959):
I love Westerns. They are based on a very simple and essential ethical code … All simple morals are important for the success of a film. Even with Shakespeare the moral is simple. The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world.
The Return of Frank James (1940)
Lang first dipped his toe in the Western genre waters just a couple of short years after arriving in Hollywood with The Return of Frank James (1940) starring Henry Fonda. His first Western was also his first colour film, and he makes the transition as well as he did with his first sound film, M. Frank (Fonda) is a reformed outlaw, trying to mind his own business and settle down on a cattle farm after quitting his brother Jesse’s infamous gang. But when he hears that the Ford boys have shot his brother in the back and collected the reward, he decides to settle the score.
Though Frank’s a confessed outlaw (traditionally, the bad guy), he’s also clearly the hero of the tale. He’s a diligent caretaker of young Clem, respectful of ladies, and he gives himself up to the authorities to save a friend from taking the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. Though Frank chases the Fords with clear intent to kill them, both end up dying by someone else’s hand. Lang portrays the corrupt judicial system, the monopolistic railroads, and powerful banks as a bigger threat to the people than Frank James, and in the end, he’s acquitted of the Fords’ murders. Despite having one of the few happy endings in Lang’s entire body of work, The Return of Frank James is still a meditation on sin and redemption.
Western Union (1941)
The (surprisingly) commercially successful The Return of Frank James was followed by Western Union (1941), a film adaptation of a Zane Grey novel about laying in Western Union telegraph lines west of Omaha. The story focuses on Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott), a man with a very shady past – and once again, this bad guy turns out to be not so bad after all. Leaving behind his life of crime, Shaw does a stranger a good deed and winds up with a job as foreman on the telegraph project. When saboteurs start to interfere with Western Union’s expansion, Shaw is torn between his old gang and his shiny new life.
Shot on location in Arizona and Utah, the film has big, gorgeous vistas, and excellent forest fire scenes, with bright red orange flames against a black night sky. When Shaw’s old gang puts the Western Union crew in real danger, Shaw goes after the gang leader and they both die in a shoot out. But no one gets the girl. No one rides off into the sunset. It mostly feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, with pretty much everyone dying at the end – but it’s thoroughly satisfying because Shaw has completed his reformation, and has redeemed himself.
Rancho Notorious (1952)
A decade later, Lang returned to the Western with Rancho Notorious (1952), an absolutely marvelous Western (melo)drama starring Marlene Dietrich, Mel Ferrer and Arthur Kennedy. Vern, a simple, hardworking man turns to vengeance when he’s told that his pretty fiance “wasn’t spared anything” when raped and murdered by an outlaw on his way through town. The only clue Vern has to the outlaw’s whereabouts are the words “Chuck-a-Luck” (the name of the film’s title song, and the working title of the film), and he sets out on a manhunt. In Vern’s travels, he hears stories about Altar Keane (Dietrich), rendered fantastic, elaborate flashbacks (the bordello drinking game/obstacle course is my personal favourite). On the way, he manages to befriend Frenchy (Ferrer), Altar’s lover, and eventually finds his way to their outlaw hideout to locate the man who killed his finace.
As with previous Lang Westerns, the main characters of Rancho Notorious are anything but innocent. Neither Altar or Frenchy are evil per se, but they do harbour criminals and, through them, profit off the misery of others. Vern starts off as a good man, but is slowly eaten away by his desire for revenge. No happy endings here: Dietrich dies after getting in the path of a bullet meant for her lover.
Ten years after his first two Westerns, Lang takes Rancho into darker territory, with characters who have little hope of (but a seemingly strong desire for) redemption. The look of Rancho is also different from his two previous Westerns because it was shot indoor, at the studio. It’s more stilted, fake – and seems like a harkening back to Lang’s earlier Expressionist roots, where the mise-en-scene conveys the characters’ inner, subjective experience.
So with just three films in an over 45-film career that mainly concentrated on noir and crime genres, Lang still managed to make an impact on the Western. As Lotte Eisner wrote in her 1976 Lang monograph, his Westerns helped to develop the new “psychological” Western:
His own distinctive manner of balancing right against wrong, of introducing darker undertones to run just under the surface of typical Western action, introduces a new element into the mythology of the Western.